At The New York Review of Books, former New York Times reporter—and current salon co-owner—Richard Bernstein takes the paper to task for its much-talked-about two–part 7000-word exposé on the exploitation and abuse of employees at nail salons in New York City.
He says the article—which led to a state-wide investigation and a new law instituted by Governor Andrew Cuomo—misrepresents the salon industry as a whole by focusing mainly on one undocumented and unlicensed worker. He also suggests it wasn’t as thoroughly reported as author Sarah Maslin Nir claims—although apparently he didn’t reach out to her for comment.
As a former New York Times journalist who also has been, for the last twelve years, a part owner of two day-spas in Manhattan, I read the exposé with particular interest. (A second part of the same investigation, which appeared in the Times a day later, concerned chemicals used in the salon industry that might be harmful to workers.) Our two modestly-sized establishments are operated by my wife, Zhongmei Li, and my sister-in-law, Zhongqin Li, both originally from China, and “mani-pedi” is a big part of the business. We were startled by the Times article’s Dickensian portrait of an industry in which workers “spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence,” and retire at night to “flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.” Its conclusion was not just that some salons or even many salons steal wages from their workers but that virtually all of them do. “Step into the prim confines of almost any salon and workers paid astonishingly low wages can be readily found,” the story asserts. This depiction of the business didn’t correspond with what we have experienced over the past twelve years. But far more troubling, as we discovered when we began to look into the story’s claims and check its sources, was the flimsy and sometimes wholly inaccurate information on which those sweeping conclusions were based….
… How to account for these evident flaws, the one-sidedness of the Times story? Recently the Times’s own Nick Kristof wrote in a column that “one of our worst traits in journalism is that when we have a narrative in our minds, we often plug in anecdotes that confirm it,” and, he might have added, consciously or not, ignore anecdotes and other information that doesn’t. The narrative chosen by the Times, what might be called the narrative of wholesale injustice, is one of the most powerful and tempting in journalism. Certainly, as Mr. Baquet put it, it had “impact.” It was read, he told an audience in mid-June, by 5 million people, which is five times the readership of the Sunday print edition, and produced an immediate government response.
Surely, Bernstein’s exposé-on-the-exposé isn’t the last word. Nir and others at the Times have taken to Twitter, and Times deputy Metro editor Michael Luo has Storified that activity and other developing aspects of the story. In a tweet, Nir suggests that Times executive editor Dean Baquet has a response in the works.
Stay tuned to find out whether it might in fact be okay to get inexpensive manicures after all…
Salon workers describe a culture of subservience that extends far beyond the pampering of customers. Tips or wages are often skimmed or never delivered, or deducted as punishment for things like spilled bottles of polish. At her Harlem salon, Ms. Cacho said she and her colleagues had to buy new clothes in whatever color the manager decided was fashionable that week. Cameras are regularly hidden in salons, piping live feeds directly to owners’ smartphones and tablets.
Qing Lin, 47, a manicurist who has worked on the Upper East Side for the last 10 years, still gets emotional when recounting the time a splash of nail polish remover marred a customer’s patent Prada sandals. When the woman demanded compensation, the $270 her boss pressed into the woman’s hand came out of the manicurist’s pay. Ms. Lin was asked not to return.
“I am worth less than a shoe,” she said.
–Sarah Maslin Nir, in The New York Times, on the low wages and abuse suffered by manicurists.
The writer travels to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, and talks to the mayor and other residents about they city’s social and economic life. Here, he speaks with Dora Seitanidou, a percussionist and university worker in her late 30s:
“‘If we become increasingly fascist—and Greek society is becoming increasingly fascist—you have to put the blame not only on the crisis but also on the educational system. The whole system is sick. Until recently everyone wanted to work for the government in Athens, because working for the government meant security, and it also meant you didn’t have to really work—it meant you could just set up a business for yourself on the side. Security is an obsession that was passed down from grandfather to father to son; maybe it can be explained by the fact that here in Thessaloniki, we’re almost all the descendants of refugees.’ (Many of the inhabitants of Thessaloniki are the descendants of Greeks who were run out of Turkey.) ‘Take my uncle and aunt, for example; they’re not incredibly rich people, but they have five houses. They have the house that they live in, three houses they rent out, and they also have a vacation home. The Greek is obsessed with property because he sees property ownership as security. My uncle and aunt have a son who’s confined to a wheelchair; they think that those houses are going to guarantee his financial security.'”
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Tom Maxwell | Longreads | January 2021 | 9 minutes (2,485 words)
Much is known about John Lennon’s self-described “Lost Weekend” — an 18-month separation from his wife Yoko Ono from the summer of 1973 to early 1975 — in which the former Beatle made records, produced records, drank, and took drugs to excess, and got kicked out of The Troubadour and various Los Angeles studios. Much less is known about how Ono spent her time back in New York.
In 1974, Ono recorded A Story at The Record Plant in New York. More than just another solo album, A Story was to be Ono’s first musical effort independent of her husband. Lennon produced or otherwise participated in all four of her previous recordings. Because of this, and the circumstances surrounding its creation, A Story is a statement of independence, a kind of personal manifesto. As a direct result of the couple’s reconciliation the following year, A Story was shelved at Ono’s direction. Most of its songs would resurface in later releases, sometimes in an entirely different emotional, as well as musical, context.
Ever since Black and Latino Americans created hip-hop at south Bronx block parties during the 1970s, this highly original, uniquely American music has continued to evolve, while simultaneously taking root in countless countries throughout the world.
As cultural critic Harry Allen once said: “hip hop is the new jazz.” But like jazz, hip-hop is more than music. It’s a culture. “’Hip-hop,’ once a noun,“ Kelefa Sanneh wrote in The New Yorker, “has become an adjective, constantly invoked, if rarely defined; people talk about hip-hop fashion and hip-hop novels, hip-hop movies and hip-hop basketball. Like rock and roll in the nineteen-sixties, hip-hop is both a movement and a marketing ploy, and the word is used to describe almost anything that’s supposed to appeal to young people.“ Beyond marketing and corporatization, hip-hop culture has always included dance, rap, fashion, design, stretching language, reclaiming public spaces, and its creative, genre-spanning approach has allowed artists to represent their lives in a world that often ignores or misrepresents them. In the San Francisco Gate in 2003, Adam Mansbach, author of Go the F**k To Sleep described hip-hop culture as “assembled from spare parts, ingeniously and in public. Paint cans refitted with oven-cleaner nozzles transformed subway trains into mobile art galleries. Playgrounds and parks became nightclubs; turntables and records became instruments. Scraps of linoleum and cardboard became dance floors. Verbal and manual dexterity turned kids into stars, and today’s artists grew up listening to the first strains of the musical form.” As Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, put it, hip-hop culture is “naturally interdisciplinary” and composed of “mix signifiers, we break everything down to bits and bytes and rebuild something new.” I love the description.
[If you’d like to browse all the books mentioned in the newsletter this week, you can do it on our Bookshop page, because I enjoy lists, especially lists about other lists, so I spent a few hours making one. -DS]
On Mother’s Day my mom told me that, still, no one in her office is wearing a mask — not when the employees are alone together. She has a public-facing job at a cemetery; through the clientele, as well, calamity stalks her. Grieving families during an epidemic should arouse our empathy, but there is one family that has done its best to test the limits of my pity: a large family of seven, unmasked, who all at once entered the little cemetery office where my mother works, and grew belligerent when asked to leave, and spoke angrily, and spread pestilence and decay upon her, the woman helping them grieve.
Alone together, the cemetery workers don’t wear masks; they do not wear masks unless customers enter; the customers who enter are often unmasked. The masks come on and off like sock and buskin in a Greek play. When it ends, I will know for sure whether it’s been a tragedy or a comedy.
In these inconstant times, I have been thinking of giving up on all these measured scientific and sociological studies of plague times that I ordered a few weeks ago, and which rest on my desk in a talismanic pile to ward off disease, and instead reading only comedies of suffering; well, I guess all comedy derives from suffering, but I mean the very blackest humor written about the very worst of times. It seems to be the only mood that fits as the virus spreads through the White House and the states “open” and my mother masks and unmasks at the cemetery. I could reread Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon, which I’ve mentioned before in the newsletter, although I didn’t mention that it’s funny. (Maybe then it didn’t seem so funny.) I could reread Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, which is about exactly what it sounds like it’s about. You could read them, too, if you’re in the mood to laugh at something that isn’t funny.
Or if not comedy, then horror. A phrase from a book occurs to me when I think of my mother and the mourners at her cemetery. Or when I see anyone without a mask. In R.W. Chambers’ seminal work of cosmic horror The King in Yellow, four of the stories are interlocking; they each reference a play called The King in Yellow that, rumor has it, drives readers insane when they get to the second act. Only two brief excerpts from the play appear in the book, which makes sense: in the book, the play is banned all over the world, but spreading nonetheless.
The phrase that recurs to me is from this fragment of the play:
Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed, it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!
I’m sure you can guess the part that strikes a nerve. But anyway that’s just me. I’m sure we all have one. Some strange little phrase that keeps coming back, again and again, to our growing horror.
1. “Cooking with Giovanni Boccaccio” by Valerie Stivers, The Paris Review
Valerie Stivers prepares a fascinating spread from The Decameron and consults The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? to find out exactly what kind of turning point one could expect a global pandemic to be. “‘The Decameron’ loathes sanctimony, tramples sacred cows, and punishes corruption. It takes elites less seriously and celebrates a cast of characters much more diverse than would previously have been allowed. By observing humanity and the world more realistically, it ushers in a new era of scholarship and reason—the Renaissance, no less.”
2. “Sleight of Hand: On Meena Kandasamy’s ‘When I Hit You’ and ‘Exquisite Cadavers’” by Stephanie Sy-Quia, The Los Angeles Review of Books
A review of two novels by Meena Kandasamy. The first, When I Hit You, “reveal[s] abusive homes as the absurdist performance sets they are: where everyday objects drift loose from their original uses …. where the players know their parts are a matter of life or death”; the second, Exquisite Cadavers, as reviewer Stephanie Sy-Quia writes, is a clever critique of how the first book was received. Reminiscent of Suki Kim’s complaint that her excellent Without You There Is No Us was labeled a memoir rather than a work of journalism, rendering it ineligible for certain journalism prizes, among other concrete consequences, Exquisite Cadavers reacts to the delegitimizing way in which When I Hit You was received as a memoir rather than a novel; “its content was valorized over its form… all too frequently, the fate of women and people of color.”
3. “When James Baldwin Wrote About the Atlanta Child Murders” by Casey Cep, The New Yorker
In light of a new HBO documentary about the Atlanta Child Murders, Casey Cep revisits James Baldwin’s writing on the case, The Evidence of Things Not Seen. Cep looks at how the piece came to be (it was no small feat for a black editor at Playboy to lure Baldwin back to the American South) and how prescient, as always, Baldwin’s argument was. He did not believe that the police’s suspect, a young gay black man, was guilty; he wasn’t sure there was a serial killer at work at all. Instead “Baldwin…. used his coverage of the child murders to argue that the crimes were representative of the way that the city and the country still failed to protect black lives. In the eyes of David Leeming, Baldwin’s biographer, ‘The Evidence of Things Not Seen’ is ‘to the aftermath of the “civil rights” movement what “The Fire Next Time” had been to its heyday.’”
4. “Making a Mess of the World: On Hao Jingfang’s ‘Vagabonds’” by Virginia L. Conn, The Los Angeles Review of Books
Virginia L. Conn writes that Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds may be the first work of Chinese sci-fi marketed in the West that has incorporated the fact that “Chinese sci-fi” is now being marketed in the West (ever since the runaway success of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem) into its social commentary; the story features “an aggressively communitarian Mars” and an Earth defined by “insularity and possessive intellectual property laws,” and it revolves around the ways in which characters from each world seem to misunderstand the alien world as well as their own. Conn says this bifurcated effect makes Vagabonds a genuinely Sino-Western work of sci-fi, written with both audiences in mind.
5. “Annie Ernaux’s Object Lessons: Braiding Identity Through Time” by Mary Hawthorne, Lit Hub
Mary Hawthorne’s review of Annie Ernaux’s The Years seems a little late out of the gate, since the book was first published in translation several years ago, but I found its reflections on consumerism to be really interesting during this time. Like all of us, I’ve been shocked by the spectacle of some (mostly white seems like?) Americans claiming they have a dire need to consume remarkably trivial things (and to be served, but I think that’s a separate, particularly racialized aspect of this uniquely American madness), a need which feels so urgent to them that they think it must be a human right. Hawthrone writes that, in The Years, a novel about a family’s evolution over the course of the 20th century, consumerism is a mechanism which erases the past and the family members’ connection to one another. “….objects, especially long-held ones, contain memories, grounding us implicitly in reality; once discarded, so, too, are the memories, along with the reality. [Ernaux] writes: ‘The increasingly rapid arrival of new things drove the past away. People did not question their usefulness, they just wanted to possess them and suffered when they didn’t earn enough to buy them outright.’” Strange to think that being surrounded by their own memories for too long is driving my countrymen insane.
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6. “The Weight of Certain News” by André Naffis-Sahely, Poetry
Garous Abdolmalekian’s Lean Against This Late Hour “is a page-turner,” writes André Naffis-Sahely, which is always a promising epithet for a collection of poetry. “‘One-Way Ticket,’ for instance, is prompted by the discovery of a bunch of one-way train tickets inside the speaker’s pocket. At first, the poem focuses on the lyricism inspired by this unexpected find: ‘Oh, all the one-way tickets! / I haven’t found anything / more sorrowful than you / in the pockets of the world.’ But then it concludes with this arresting image: ‘—You pound the windowpanes of this train to no avail. / In vain you hurl your voice to the other side of the window. / We / are the actors in a silent film.’”
7. “‘Unless We Make Some Place’: On Andy Croft’s ‘The Years of Anger: The Life of Randall Swingler’” by Robert Chandler, The Los Angeles Review of Books
Robert Chandler reviews Andy Croft’s The Years of Anger, a biography of Randall Swingler, a British poet who Chandler writes has long been erased from the British canon because of his commitment to communism. Swingler is best remembered for the poetry he wrote as a soldier in WWII. Shortly after the war was over, he wrote:
It is only the bone that is dead. The earth is their flesh
And every year grows green in the sloughing of grief.
All they have lost is fear and the crooked bone.
But in me only the bone is alive, must watch
The slow decay of the will, the inch by inch
Retreat of the nerves, the death by shame.
8. “The Defender of Differences” by Kwame Anthony Appiah, The New York Review of Books
A lively review of recent books about or featuring Franz Boas, the father of cultural anthropology. It begins, “Franz Boas fought his first duel in 1877, when he was nineteen,” and then the reader discovers, delightfully, that the father of cultural anthropology was more or less ritually scarified all over his face. Because apparently the point of duels was to just slice the other person’s face up. Oh, also he was dueling proto-nazis! (Thought I’d try to end on a positive note this week.)
Robin Antalek | Longreads | April 2020 | 18 minutes (4,599 words)
In 1964, when my mother was pregnant with my younger brother, she found out that her husband, my father, had married another woman and that woman was pregnant as well. My father’s new wife had left her family and three small children, and then she and my father had created a subset family, making us a complicated algebraic formula, resistant to logic. He and his new wife lived together somewhere in Fairfield County, Connecticut, commuting distance to their jobs in Manhattan, where they had met. For a while they lived in his red Volvo wagon that smelled of his ever present Camel cigarettes.
Once, way before my brother, he drove us in that same red Volvo wagon down the wide tree lined Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn to a pre-war apartment building overlooking Prospect Park for a visit with his parents. The adults gathered in a room with windows that offered a view of the tops of the trees while, at 3, I remained in the kitchen with the housekeeper and a parakeet in a cage in front of a window that looked out onto a brick walled airshaft.
The bird turned its back on us while I ate Milano cookies. When dinner was ready the housekeeper took my hand in hers and led me into the big room. I was too full to eat the bright pink roast on the broad, gold-rimmed dinner plates, or sip from the tiny glass of tomato juice resting on a paper doily on a miniature plate. I know the attention on me was uncomfortable and confusing. My feet dangled from the chair in patent leather shoes and I was reprimanded by my father more than once for kicking the bar that stretched between the legs. Tucked in the large bureau behind me was a Batman and Robin coloring book, a gift chosen I supposed because of my name, not gender, along with a fresh pack of crayons, promised to me only if I ate my entire dinner. Later I am shattered, inconsolable, my face rubbed raw against the shoulder of my father’s tweed coat as he carries me from the apartment, a piece of meat still lodged between my cheek and molars.
Naz Riahi | Longreads | March 2020 | 29 minutes (7,251 words)
A few months after I was born, just a year after The Islamic Revolution, Shee Shee and Baba bought a house and moved, with my 12-year-old brother and me, to Karaj, a suburb of Tehran.
They moved to the suburb, in part, for the same reasons many young couples with children everywhere in the world, do — for space and a quiet place to raise their family. They moved also to get away from the chaos of Tehran, a city that was changing rapidly, seemingly overnight, after The Revolution — becoming overbearing with rules, regulations and unexpected dangers.
They found refuge in a private development called Dehkadeh. Built a few years before our move, in the mid ‘70s, Dehkadeh had a guarded entrance and a town square. Its streets, named after flowers, were lined with white birch — regal, gentle. Over the years, the birch grew tall, bending towards each other, creating a canopy. In the hot summers, they shaded us, letting just enough light stream through their leaves. In autumn those same leaves changed color and fell to the ground, turning our streets into rivers of reds and yellows. In the winters, their bare branches were covered in snow and icicles.
The town square had a sandwich shop, a grocery store and bakery. There was a fountain in the middle and a sit-down restaurant — which, shortly after we moved, was taken over by the government and turned into a mosque. All of the businesses, including the local bus line, were owned by people who lived in the community, comprising 700 or so houses. My pediatrician was a family friend who lived a few doors down from us, the elementary school I would eventually attend was at the end of our cul-de-sac and all of the teachers lived in Dehkadeh.
That was home. An hour’s drive to the city, but a different world, less hectic, safer (for a time) like a secret that protected us from all the bad, scary things happening in Iran — the war with Iraq, the new government that brutally enforced theocracy, the people whose allegiances weren’t known and who therefore couldn’t be trusted.
We lived on Niloufar Gharby (Water Lily West). Our tiny, single-story ranch-style house had a white metal gate that creaked open and shut and was surrounded by hedges thick with honeysuckle whose fragrance and nectar I’d lose myself in, daydreaming about all the happy lives I’d live someday. I’d become a writer like my grandfather, Baba Moeini, revered as he was. I’d travel the world like Shee Shee and Baba had done before The Revolution, before I was born. I’d be the hero of a real life story like my favorite superheroes, the ones I’d learned about on bootleg videos procured by my aunt’s husband on the post-Revoution black market, where everything from Corn Flakes to Michael Jackson tapes could still be found.
Our backyard was large and filled with fruit trees — peaches, nectarines, sour cherries, apples, and plums. A trellis ran down the middle, covered in grape leaves, and a white swing sat under an enormous weeping willow. There were rows and rows of strawberries in the field, and rose bushes beneath the windows.
Between the time I was a toddler and a child, my parents tore apart the back of our house to expand the living room and give me my own bedroom adjacent to theirs. I remember the excitement of getting a room of my own, but when construction ended and a big-girl bed arrived, I was horribly afraid to be alone at night. Though my parents’ room was just on the other side of my door, I felt abandoned. I remember Baba putting me to bed, tucking me in, and telling me to be brave.
For Baba, a helicopter pilot and soldier who was often away fighting in an actual war, bravery was a person’s greatest asset. His bedtime stories were rich with heroes fighting dangerous forces. I tried hard to be brave for him, but fell asleep each night a coward, hiding beneath my comforter from the night and its invisible dangers.
I took my first steps in the hallway in front of my older brother’s room. Shee Shee insists there is no way I could remember. But I do. I remember falling into an uncle’s arms. After that, the memories rush in.