Tag Archives: longreads

How One Porn Mogul Made His Fortune and Ruined Everything

Despite riches, power, and respect, some people are never satisfied. A poor North Carolina kid named Michael Thevis turned paperback smut and peep show machines into a million-dollar empire, and he shaped America’s porn industry right as laws started to relax around the ownership and production of sexually explicit material. When Thevis crossed into arson, threats, and murder, he brought himself down for good. At The Daily Beast, crime journalist Jeff Maysh gets access to Thevis’ diaries and letters to tell the full story of “The Scarface of Sex” for the first time.

Rival peep machine manufacturers emerged, included those run by Leon and Mike Sokolic, Art Sanders, and Bill Walters. Before now, the most Thevis had ever done to intimidate a rival was let off a stink bomb at a store in Baltimore. Not all competitors rolled over so easily. Nat Bailen, who manufactured a peep show machine for cartoons, started to sell his units to sex-shop owners who used them for porn. In 1970, a customer named Harry Mooney in Michigan asked to lease 50 machines from Thevis—an order so large he couldn’t meet it in time. Instead, Mooney bought his machines outright from Nat Bailen. As he would do so often, Thevis turned to Underhill.

“Something,” Thevis told him, “has to be done with Bailen.”

On April 26, 1970, Underhill drove from Atlanta to Louisville in his yellow station wagon, where he met a paid accomplice, Clifford “Sam” Wilson. In the dead of night, they broke into Bailen’s factory, carrying burglary tools and five-gallon containers of gasoline. They built a bonfire using his furniture and paperwork. When Wilson found some paint cans, he told Underhill, “Let’s really screw this guy,” and poured paint over the desks and carpets. There were four-foot-tall flames licking at the windows by the time the goons fled. Reeking of gasoline, Underhill found a pay phone at the Kentucky Turnpike, and called Thevis at the Central Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.

“Veni vidi vici,” Underhill said—I came, I saw, I conquered.

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A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant

J.M. Servín| For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as An Undocumented Immigrant | Unnamed Press | translated by Anthony Seidman | March 2017 | 18 minutes (4,894 words) 

The excerpt below is adapted from For Love of the Dollar, in which Mexican novelist and journalist J.M. Servín recalls the 10 years he spent living and working illegally in the United States (with a brief interlude in Ireland). This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical.

The average wage for undocumented workers was six dollars an hour. With a Social Security card, even if it was fake, nobody could avoid paying taxes, unless they paid you under the table. I asked questions of other day laborers, who were often hostile or suspicious, as to how they got hired. Almost all of them were recommended by a family member or someone from their hometown. Those with most experience said that after two years of work, things would improve. The trick was to grin and bear it. Bosses liked inexhaustible workers who kept their mouths shut. No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical. And for each poor soul who had a tragedy to share, there was someone else with an even more gruesome Calvary. I lived surrounded by tough types, in a religious sense: Jesuit-like, ready for the most absurd sacrifices as long as they could get a pot to piss in.

I worked my ass off just like them and I never complained because they were the first ones to test me. Working alongside them, each task proved to be a lonely and tough affair, until I proved my mettle and that I wasn’t going to desert my job. They were bent on destroying anyone who threatened their jobs with scheming and other tricks.

Parrot had given me my fake papers, but with my birthdate making me seven years younger. The signatures on the work permit and Social Security card looked as if they had been scrawled by a second grader. All in all, though, the papers seemed passable.

That same Tuesday night, the chef stopped serving a couple of hours earlier than usual; it was around two in the morning on a rather slow shift. I had finished washing a battery of enormous aluminum pots and had hooked them above the stoves. It was the least they expected of me. Nobody complained, but everyone else seemed to work harder. They were oiled up with pride itself. All the while I worked there I barely had the opportunity to size up the dimensions of the kitchen. We were able to move about with ease, but nobody stepped over the boundaries of his workstation. Each to his own, ignoring what was going on elsewhere. Waiters and busboys came down for their orders, and they shouted some praise at us if only to hurry us on, as their tips were at risk.

I remembered when I worked as a butcher at an expensive restaurant in Mexico City, how the waiters would toss us a few bones gathered from their tips. Here, hell no. We should be grateful that they even spoke to us. There was a red-haired waiter of Greek origin who would rush down the stairs each night, get down on one knee, throw us kisses, extending his arms, as if he were on the Broadway stage, all while shouting: “Thank you!” He would respond to our catcalls by inviting us to go out with him. He was always in a good mood, and he called all of us Pepes. One of the cooks gave him the nickname Puputo. It was the only word in Spanish that he understood.

Upon finishing my job, I went to the changing area. The Puerto Rican was there asking if anyone wanted to wash the shelves in the refrigerator the size of a guestroom on the rooftop, in order to place the meat, vegetables, and rest of the food that they had used during the day. Afterward, the volunteer would have to gather all the work uniforms, separate them, and then bring them up to the truck for linen service. The guy in charge of this hadn’t shown up. He started his shift when Parrot did. No one answered. They continued to quickly change, ready to get home. I raised my hand, and without glancing around to see if anyone else would do it, I received the extra pay, and I went to the restaurant to get to work.

I had to go up the stairs. The kitchen was in the basement of a twenty-three-story building. I finished almost three hours later, drugged from exhaustion. Read more…

Following John McPhee’s Path to ‘Oranges’

Some works of nonfiction grow dated quickly, others remain what poet Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news.” John McPhee’s slim book Oranges came out in 1967, and although the players in Florida’s citrus industry have changed, Oranges endures as a classic of unconventional journalism. For the Oxford American, Wyatt Williams travels to Florida in McPhee’s footsteps fifty years, revisiting places that McPhee visited, examining his mix of research, reporting, and essay writing. What Williams finds is a very different Florida, and a work that has endured the  changes to both the publishing industry, and citrus industry.

Hunt was born into the industry. He picked in the groves as a teenager, studied citrus in school. Aside from a brief prodigal period—long hair, VW van, the seventies—he has been here in Florida, working with oranges, his whole life. The Hunt Bros. packing house is a technological marvel, a Rube Goldberg machine of whirring, spinning, weighing, cleaning, sorting contraptions capable of marvels that McPhee would have delighted in. As we walked through, though, it was hard not to notice the way the machine was sorting out so much fruit, the small, useless harvest of greening. All the sorting technology in the world makes no difference if you don’t have the right fruit to put in it. We went for a drive in the groves after.

Only a person with Hunt’s experience can navigate a grove. To an outsider, it is like entering a hedge maze, an endless geometric trap of rows and rows of citrus trees. As we cruised the acres in his truck, there was never a spot where you couldn’t see some effect of the disease. When an owner abandons a grove, it creates problems for the neighbors. Without maintenance, a deserted grove is a breeding ground for psyllids, the bugs that carry the disease. The only way to stop them from spreading is to push and burn the infected trees. That’s what they call ripping the trees from the ground, pushing them into a pile, and lighting them on fire. Hunt pointed out evidence of this, swaths of land scarred with rows but no trees. He saw that as a good thing, evidence of owners who had taken care of their property. All around he pointed to abandoned groves, crippled-looking gnarled trees with useless fruit. These were the bad neighbors, he said, ones who cut their losses and walked away and left the problem for everybody else. One day their trees will have to burn, too.

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David Sedaris Is Depressed

Donald Trump’s presidency seems to have only been kind to comedians and the wealthy. At the Paris Review, humorist and expatriate David Sedaris tallies the many reasons for his current state of shame and sadness, which comes from being an American traveling the world in times of Trump. As always, Sedaris’ greatest gift is his ability to laugh at the absurdity of life.

Eight. I join my family on Emerald Isle for Thanksgiving and have a great screaming fight with my Republican father, who yells at one point, “Donald Trump is not an asshole!” I find this funny but at the same time surprising. Regardless of whether or not you voted for him, I thought the president-elect’s identity as a despicable human being was something we could all agree on. I mean, he pretty much ran on it.

Later in our argument my father shouts, “He’s the best thing that’s happened to this country in years,” and, “It was just locker-room talk.”

“I’m in locker rooms five days a week and have never heard anyone carry on like Trump in that video,” I argue. “And if I did, I wouldn’t think, Wow, that guy ought to be my president. I’d think he was a creep and a loser.” Then I add, repeating something I’d heard from someone else, “Besides, he wasn’t in a locker room, he was at work.”

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The ‘Smashing Things Together’ Approach to Editorial Illustration

Our Art Director Kjell Reigstad recently shared his insights on editorial illustration with our company colleagues. We thought you’d enjoy it too.


In my role on the Editorial team, I end up touching a lot of different parts of Automattic. I work on learning resources, company blogs, highlighting great users, longform publishing, and brand work, with the occasional theme and conference design thrown in. This sort of variety is absolutely amazing, and one of my favorite things about working here.Of all the projects I get to work on, my favorite thing to do may be illustrations for Longreads. It’s lovely to focus on reading and reflecting on stories, and to have the freedom to explore and experiment with visual representation.I’ve done over a hundred illustrations for Longreads over the years, and I thought I’d share a few notes on the concepting process I go through for each one.


I always start by reading the story (obviously!). While reading, I take note of all the visuals that pop into my head along the way. Most of them will end up being tossed out, but usually there are a few that help build the base of the illustration.For example, we recently published an essay where Jami Attenberg describes her battle with flight anxiety. Here’s the list I jotted down while reading her piece:

  • airplanes
  • airports
  • airplane seats
  • clouds
  • books
  • pills
  • xanax
  • pill bottles

When I’m finished reading the story, I run through a series of mental exercises that I picked up years ago in my “Visual Communication” class from design school. VisCom (as we called it) was a required course for all Design, Illustration, and Advertising majors, since at their core, all of those fields center around utilizing visuals to convey or enhance an idea. We were taught about symbolism, juxtaposition, and how to use use color, shapes, and text to get a message across. Here are the questions I ask myself:

  • Are any of these items a common symbol? If so, does it represent something that relates well to the story?
  • Can one of these items be turned into a new symbol?
  • Can I smash some of these images together to make something new?
  • Is there a scene from the story that I can build using these images?

My favorite of the bunch is the “smash things together” exercise. This usually involves taking two seemingly unrelated things and combining them to create greater meaning. In the case of Jami’s essay, I smashed clouds together with Xanax pills to depict the anxiety-ridden, Xanax-fueled flights she described throughout her story.

20170606-Airplane-Anxiety

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad (Airplane photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Another great example of this approach is the illustration I did for Alexander Chee’s piece, “Our Well-Regulated Militia.” I smashed together a map of the United States and a gun rack to echo the article’s statement about the prevalence of guns in America:

20160413-Alexander-Chee

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

This technique doesn’t always work, but it does help kickstart creative thinking, and can help generate other solutions. I often run through 2–3 ideas for each illustration before finding one that sticks.


We’ve been building up our publishing pace and coverage lately at Longreads, and illustration plays a key part in making this successful. Our illustrations help attract readers, and if done well, they can amplify the message of the story itself. We’ve been bringing in some amazing freelance illustrators lately, and I want to close by showcasing some of the great work they’ve been doing too:

How Wells Fargo Bankers Gamed Customers to Make Sales Goals

If you already don’t trust the ways some big banks invest your money, Wells Fargos’ treatment of customers won’t increase your confidence. At Vanity Fair, Bethany McLean reveals the widespread corruption among Wells Fargo salespeople, and the way staff high up the corporate chain tolerated it. Between 2011 and 2015, bankers created over 1.5 million deposit and 565,000 credit-card accounts without customer approval. Employees blamed the company’s intense culture, and internal complaints made little difference. In 2016, Wells paid a $185 million fine, yet it admitted no wrongdoing, and it didn’t immediately eliminate its retail product sales goals. So what changes have been made to protect its customers? And why should anyone trust them again?

Guitron says that customers began coming to her, complaining about getting mail from Wells Fargo on accounts or services that they had never authorized. “People knew me and knew I could fix the problems,” she says. A common denominator, according to Guitron, was that most of the customers were Spanish-speaking, like her, so they didn’t feel comfortable going to management in English.

“All the tellers and staff knew it, but no one else would complain,” Guitron says. “People needed the job. So did I, but I knew right from wrong.” On September 19, 2008, she sent an e-mail to her branch manager. “I have come across instances where I’ve opened accounts and shortly after they are closed and new sets of accounts are opened,” she wrote. “I find NO banker notes to explain why this is happening. I am very concerned as I know this to be GAMING!!!” She collected approximately 300 printouts of accounts that were problematic in various ways, she says, such as a minor having more than a dozen accounts. But, according to Guitron in legal documents, her manager would say only, “It’s a misunderstanding.” Or “You need to mind your own business.”

Nothing changed, so Guitron requested meetings with more senior executives. Overall, she claimed that during her tenure at Wells Fargo she raised concerns on more than 100 occasions, including about a dozen calls to the Wells Fargo EthicsLine, and on no fewer than 37 occasions she provided records that supported her complaints. Guitron alleges that her managers began to retaliate, making it harder for her to meet her sales goals. She was fired in January 2010.

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Haruki Murakami’s Advice to Young Writers

International best-seller Haruki Murakami has a new short story collection out, entitled Men Without Women. To celebrate, here is an excerpt from his essay “So What Shall I Write About?” published in the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business. In it, Murakami muses on what it takes to become a novelist by analyzing his own methods and experience, and he gives us a glimpse into his creative process. Although Murakami has published numerous essay collections in Japanese, little of his short nonfiction is available in English. This essay was translated by Ted Goosesen, and it, and this issue of Monkey Business, are a treat.

We are─or at least I am─equipped with this expansive mental chest of drawers. Each drawer is packed with memories, or information. There are big drawers and small ones. A few have secret compartments, where information can be hidden. When I am writing, I can open them, extract the material I need and add it to my story. Their numbers are countless, but when I am focused on my writing I know without thinking exactly which drawer holds what and can immediately put my hands on what I am looking for. Memories I could never recall otherwise come naturally to me. It’s a great feeling to enter into this elastic, unrestrained state, as if my imagination had pulled free from my thinking mind to function as an autonomous, independent entity. Needless to say, for a novelist like me the information stored in my “chest” is a rich and irreplaceable resource.

…Remember that scene in Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. where E.T. assembles a transmitting device from the junk he pulls out of his garage? There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player─it’s been a long time since I saw the movie, so I can’t recall everything, but he manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing. The key component is not the quality of the materials─what’s needed is magic. If that magic is present, the most basic daily matters and the plainest language can be turned into a device of surprising sophistication.

First and foremost, though, is what’s packed away in your garage. Magic can’t work if your garage is empty. You’ve got to stash away a lot of junk to use if and when E.T. comes calling!

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Inside the Canadian Credit Bubble, Where Too Many Canadians Live Beyond their Means

The credit cards that once empowered many Canadians are now allowing people to bury themselves in debt they can’t recover from. In The Walrus, Raizel Robin writes about this new middle class. It’s an aspirational one that lives paycheck to paycheck, is not always willing to give up certain lifestyle choices and luxury activities, and relies on Payday loans that only compound their problems. Some financial analysts warn that the day of reckoning is approaching.

Indeed, while the largest chunk of our household expenditures goes toward groceries, transportation, and shelter, many Canadians seem uninterested in prioritizing needs over wants—according to a recent cibc poll, only half of those surveyed were willing to cut spending on non-­essential items in order to keep up with bills. Our debt load is, in a sense, the result of an aspirational burden. “Middle class” once meant exactly that—the ­median in household net worth, or the point at which half the population has a higher income and the other half a lower one. A 2013 ­internal government document deemed middle-­class incomes to be anywhere between $54,000 and $108,000—that’s quite a spread. Middle-­class status has thus become more of a state of mind than a demographic bracket. Federal finance minister Bill Morneau recently admitted as much, defining middle-class Canadians, in part, according to the “lifestyle they ­aspire to.”

But it’s hard to deny the fact that such lifestyles tend to be defined by consumption, or what one American sociologist has dubbed “upscale emulation.” A bankruptcy lawyer I spoke with has helped clients in just this fix—clients such as the Toronto architect crushed by $105,000 in tax debt and $75,000 in credit card debt who still managed to vacation in the tropics four times a year with his wife. Or the divorced, ­self-employed Toronto chiropractor who made $4,900 a month and insisted that both her kids attend private school—until the Canada Revenue Agency froze her ­accounts. We spend our way into the standard of living we feel we deserve, buying stuff that makes us who we think we are, or want to be.

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Coming of Age in the Army

Parents of all stripes struggle to keep their kids in school, off drugs, and on track for adult life and careers. In Texas Monthly, writer John Nova Lomax narrates the struggle he and his wife went through with their son, who liked trashing cars and quitting jobs more than attending university. After the young man finds direction and identity in the Army, the lingering question becomes: at what personal cost?

We’d all entered into a toxic scenario called hostile dependency. He needed us for everything, we hated ourselves whether we indulged him or didn’t, and he despised himself for having to ask. We fought for weeks: John Henry and me, John Henry and his mom, John Henry and Kelly—all of us angry and terrified and just plain sad. No, I couldn’t co-sign a year’s lease on an apartment for him. No, I wouldn’t sign up for four years of tuition and living expenses for classes he might periodically show interest in attending. No, I couldn’t buy him another car, and he wouldn’t ride the bus or settle for a bike.

Often our arguments would end with John Henry pointing out how much better I’d had it when I was his age. And it’s true, I had. Thanks to a small inheritance, the many, many errors of my misspent youth—dropping out of two colleges, burning through cars and jobs on a pace equal to his—were softened. I had a safety net and he did not, and I felt terribly guilty about it. But nevertheless, I could not give him what I did not have. At the end of all these arguments, he’d shuffle back to his little backyard house behind ours, his shoulders slumped, his head hung low, feeling that much more hopeless about his lot in life. As for me, I’d feel like a failure because I couldn’t provide what many of his friends with wealthier parents could: that newish SUV, the four (or five, or six) years of worry-free college and study-abroad programs, followed by an internship at a cool company with prospects. In short, a plan. I could not give my son a plan, other than the military, England, or else.

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Treating Our Border As a Battle Zone

At Fusion, Sasha von Oldershausen revisits the story of Esequiel Hernandez, the 18-year old who Marines fatally shot when they were patrolling the border in 1997. They mistook him for a drug smuggler in a part of West Texas that the U.S. Government characterized as the front line of the War on Drugs. But how dangerous is this area? And is militarization the most effective way to reduce the drug trade? Twenty years later, many people here feel less safe. As one longtime resident said, “The moment you employ the rhetoric of war, it becomes a battle zone.”

It was this same wrongful characterization of Redford that would ultimately lead to Esequiel’s death. In some ways, it’s plain to see how the Marines could have mistaken Esequiel for a criminal, given “the fragmentary and sometimes inaccurate picture of local conditions,” as the congressional investigation stated.

JTF-6 was equipped with a cursory understanding of the area gleaned from notes written by their sergeant, recounted in the Marine Corp report, which stated: “Redford is not a friendly town,” and “Connections between town residents and drug traffickers were assumed to be the norm.”

They were not informed that families lived just a stone’s throw from where they were hiding, and that among them were Hernandez and his brothers and sisters, his mother and father, who resided in a small cluster of humble homes below the hill where he was shot. They were not told that Esequiel would herd his goats daily in the very region they were monitoring. They didn’t even know that the Polvo Crossing was a “Class B” entry—a legal route for pedestrian traffic to cross the river—until two days into their mission.

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