Hazlitt Magazine

The Year in How Things Seem

I thought giving generously would mean, when I needed it, I’d receive help without asking. I am learning that life is not a mind reader. 

The Year in Broth

My memories of these meals carried me, unwaveringly, from month to wretched month—attempting to re-conjure them gave me something to do at my most desperate.

The Year in the Meat Crime

Terrace House makes reality TV engrossing, ensuring a long-maligned medium and its most maligned genre are streaming their way into hearts around the world.

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The Year in How Things Seem

I thought giving generously would mean, when I needed it, I’d receive help without asking. I am learning that life is not a mind reader. 

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Things are not what they seem is a common leitmotif of film; the eeriness of a suburban family against the backdrop of pristine Americanism. In Blue Velvet, a young, cherub-faced Kyle MacLachlan finds a severed human ear in the gladed green grass. In American Beauty, an idyllic family life thinly veils a marriage falling apart, betrayal, greed and Lolita-esque seduction. In Ordinary People, a family in mourning tries to remain stoic in the face of sadness. The darkness of mundanity is just beneath the quaint surface, stewing, bubbling, wanting and waiting to erupt. I’ve always related to the facade of togetherness. When I was younger, I was good at telling stories. Generally, I told them to create a familial fantasy, some strange fiction that I had concocted about the very normal, and very loving, life that I led. I lied gratuitously about my mother, who worked as an artist and as a part-time daycare worker; about my father, a lecturer (later a professor), because I wanted to make believe that we had money and grandeur. I wanted to make believe that my mother wasn’t crazy, and that she loved me—and that the bruises on my arms, the cuts on my back, weren’t from her, that I was a silly clumsy kid who walked into chairs and walls, a kid who played on trees too often, the wounding branches and leaves macerating my fragile exterior.  Messy little thing that I was, it was easy to believe. After a while even I began to believe that narrative, too. Believing that I was, in fact, worthless—too worthless to look after myself, thinking that’s why my mother didn’t, either. I convinced myself that I was undeserving of the love I saw other children bask in. There was always a constant, heady part of me that wanted to self-immolate, thinking that the answer to my prayers was death; I was suicidal at ten. Outwardly, though, I seemed confident, alive like a current, seeking approval from friends, teachers, acquaintances, needing to be absolved of my sins. Friendly, and hungry, wildly—I’ve always been well liked. *  My father very slyly sent me an article a few years back that detailed how millennials (and, strangely, genXers as well) are more historically depressed because of—get this—Facebook. Zuckerberg, creating everlasting divides. The piece detailed a rise in our collective frustration that lives were being led without us that looked so much better than our own. The stories we tell of ourselves are rooted in some hopeful imagination about what we wish we had, or what we think we deserve.  How many times have I looked towards a friend, and been happy for all their accomplishments, only to feel utterly terrible about myself shortly after? Jealousy, I’ve been told, is a good fuel—but what happens when it becomes toxic, like a sugar plum rotting in the sun, turned sour? What happens when you can’t alchemize it, and it, instead, becomes weaponized against you?  I’m rarely jealous, but often sad. Sad at my feelings of invisibility (feelings I understand are ridiculous), sad that I feel like my career has been slow to build—I’m 28, and have been freelancing patiently, regularly, for eight years, and yet my career as a writer sometimes feels like it’s somewhat plateaued. Sometimes, I feel bitter.  Yet, there are moments, cherished moments, of visibility that feel like a reminder that I’m on the right path. There have been moments of resoluteness, where things have felt like they’re making sense. In these moments, the gaps feel less all-encompassing. Writing is generally how I feel sedated, but in this past just-over-a-year, there have been moments where it felt purposeful. Social media has a way of validating things that don’t necessarily need to be validated. Like a singular, pithy line, or a glorious magic-hour selfie. Such things, up until now, were done in relative obscurity, with a scrawl in one’s journal, or on a manual Canon SLR, and then forgotten. These moments of recognition made me challenge how we measure success, in relation to how we measure self-worth. * In January of last year, a few days after my birthday, I found my mother in her room, slumped at the edge of her bed, immobile from a suicide attempt. She was crumpled like a non-human, and when I saw her, something kicked in. I wasn’t her daughter, I was her caretaker. I have always been my mother’s that, I just never wanted the job. For days, I nursed her, and for nights on end she would come to my door, screaming, knocking, at 2 a.m., at 3 a.m., needing the solace of someone who she hopes loves her. I would have to pull her out of her anxiety, her depression, massage her swollen feet, whisper her prayers, and remind her that she would be alright. I had done this my whole life. It’s wild how in those moments time is endless, circular. It was like a replay of every single time I’ve come to her aid, a cycle of violence, continued. A few days after her attempt, I got an email from the publisher I was working with on my first book to find out that they were going under. A week later, the Muslim ban happened, just as I was planning to move back to the United States to start a new, fruitful life. As all of this was going on, I was interviewed by Vogue about visibility and style. I shared it on social media, and friends congratulated me. It felt strange to encourage a certain perspective of my togetherness, of my “success,” at this moment. I didn’t know how to say that things are never as they seem. The alternative, though, sounded like a petty defense, so, for the most part, I stayed quiet, not knowing how to describe the fact that in moments of life and death, career highlights (big or small) are strangely arbitrary. On social media, how do you describe your unhappiness—the devastating reality of depression, your mother’s illness, usurping you like a black cloud? How do you detail sadness, without seeming maniacal, or obsessed with pain? * The thing is, some people have a natural shield, a presence of togetherness; a semblance of strength. Some people can be ruptured and still maintain a composure that borders on sociopathic. Some people don’t know how to turn to a friend, a lover, and say: I’m tired, please help me; or: I’m exhausted, let me rest.   I am one of these odd, incongruent humans who doesn’t know how to ask any old soul for help. I thought giving a lot, with kindness, would mean, when it was my turn, like karma, I would receive it without asking. I am learning, though, rather indelicately, that life isn’t a mind-reader. Women are not taught to seek help, at least we are not conditioned to it. I was always preened for a man, for birthing, or wifedom, but never for myself; my needs. Even to myself, what I want is oh so very secondary. It becomes such a naturalized waltz of picking up laundry, and cooking meals, and hurling myself towards caring for another human with such sedated eagerness, openness. Brutalizing my own comfort, I will always  genuflect at the altar of somebody else. Conveying not a glimpse of shattering pain, or interior misery and sadness. Instead friends closest to me have always been surprised that I might suffer from depression, saying, “But, you always look so happy.” * I’ve recently become friends with a young poet that I deeply admire. Their career is one of those rare gems of overwhelming accomplishment—a New York Times Best Seller in their early twenties, millions of copies of their book sold worldwide. Before knowing them it would have been easy to create a narrative of their quiet luck. Oh, how nice it must be to be known! To be read! To be that idolized! Talking to them, however, has been deeply humbling. I’ve found out the opposite, learning all the ways in which they have been attacked online and how they’ve both surreptitiously, and publically, been hurt by people close to them, how they’ve lost friends. It made me realize how often we put people on pedestals of invincibility. How it’s so easy to misjudge and create interpretations of somebody’s life, just because of the supposed “virtue” of fame. It also showed me how deeply divided we are, and how we’re unwilling to accept others’ successes, because so often it feels like an attack on us, as if their accomplishment is a reflection of our own demise. It’s scarcity mentality 101, and in fact the system (white supremacy) functions on this divide; the more time we’re focusing on hating each other, the less time we’re focusing on a revolution.  *  Life isn’t a mind reader, and neither are people. There’s an important lesson to be learnt as we move forward in this age of over-information, when everyone’s lives are available to us in formatted, clickable views. The old adage of never assuming anyone’s baggage continuously plays in my head, like a song, as I’m learning, in turn, how to intuit that sometimes asking for help is a revolutionary choice. I’m realizing that they’re linked. That they’re both about expecting more from humankind, and knowing what you deserve is a powerful, resonating thing. But, there’s also something to be considered about putting people on untouchable platforms, only to pull them off, a knife to the back. How do we function as a society, if we’re unwilling to appreciate people’s foibles, their tacky flaws, how do we evolve if there’s no place to fall? There’s a dark side of everyone, shadows unseen. Yet, despite it all, I’m learning that a good reminder is this: growing older is not jumping to conclusions about people. It is assuming less, and allowing people to surprise me, in the most earnest of ways. It’s about nurturing the idea of being nurtured, and understanding that it’s two-fold: to be and to nurture are a part of the same device. It’s about knowing everyone has baggage, and that most human things are never truly as they seem. My good friend Gleb explained to me once that in Eastern European Jewish tradition, bad things come in threes, only to make room for positive things to occur. He assured me that brighter days were coming. He told me I’d be okay.
The Year in Broth

My memories of these meals carried me, unwaveringly, from month to wretched month—attempting to re-conjure them gave me something to do at my most desperate.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Honestly, who knows how many hours I’ve spent watching broth on the stove. Watching it simmer. Watching it boil. Sprinkling chiles before I stirred the minced garlic, but only after I’d already spooned in some watered-down doenjang. Or, on other days, I’d whisk whole cans of coconut milk in the pot, entirely unperturbed, setting the base for a blistering heat. I’d sip a teaspoon and dash the rest towards the fridge. Or I’d ladle a thimble, and then a palmful, until curiosity evolved into gluttony, spilling down my chin, and the serving I was taste-testing entirely overwhelmed me, and the front of my hoodie was drenched. But I knew, no matter what, the resulting liquid would always add up to failure; I was doomed (I am doomed) to chase a proverbial, soup-y dragon. No matter the recipe. Forever and onwards. Which makes sense, probably, since, more often than not, I was only chasing the memory of a taste, or maybe the memory of the thought of taste, and also the color it’d left on my tongue. Throughout 2018, the present was brusque and gauche. The absolute fucking worst. And while I had neither the desire nor the resources to requisition the past for comfort, the remembrance of it—of how it tasted, specifically—was inescapable, so that’s what I yearned for: in the emergency room, at the bank, or just posted up in bed, scrolling through Tumblr on my phone. Because the mindset, I guess, went as follows: this year, I wanted comfort. And I find comfort in broth. In the bowls I grew up with, and the ones that have since blessed my stomach along the way. So, for months, this is what I tried recreating at the stove, with my timer on the counter and my back on the sofa and my ass on the wall, letting the blood rush to my head. It makes less sense to try deducing how much broth I drank (too much), or how much I cooked (threefold), than to tell you which hues I tried finessing into reality: one of the most elusive iterations came from this trip I took as a kid. I’d been visiting family in Jamaica. We stood around this pit in thoroughly wooded country. My cousins slurped from styrofoam cups of soup absentmindedly, having warned me that my stomach wouldn’t (couldn’t!) handle the heat. The lanky stranger ladling the broth was older than me, but not absurdly so, and when he asked if I wanted a Scotch bonnet in my bowl, I stuttered, since I knew that I shouldn’t—but also, fuck it. And I accepted one nonetheless. Maybe I thought he was cute. Maybe I wanted to impress him. The dude grinned, pouring me a few mouthfuls of the murky liquid, and I’d only taken half a sip before realizing there are some mistakes you can’t walk back from. I could’ve screamed. Could’ve popped. This was the most explosive thing I’ve ever tasted. The broth felt like the color orange. I spit it out immediately; the ladler stood unimpressed, but entirely unsurprised. That dalliance put me in bed for the day, and one day became three. Three days gelled into a week. But I’d spend the next decade pining for that same punch, dreaming about that shock in the back of my throat. In another iteration, years later, a guy I was dating and me hit the sack after an argument. I was unreasonably upset, pissed off over some now unrecoverable thing. When I woke up, hours later, I found my dude hunched over a whole chicken, beside onions and fish sauce and white pepper and ginger knobs. We both had a habit of eating at all hours. We cooked to cool off. And his soup simmered in a pot on his single space burner, bubbling a familiar croon under the space heater. So I was pissed as my guy stirred the liquid, and I was pissed as he poured some in a chipped blue bowl, but, after the first sip, I was no longer upset: I wasn’t anything. It was the clearest broth I’ve ever tasted. The absolute purest. When I asked him what it was, my guy called it Just Something My Grandmother Showed Me. The recipe was in her hands. Now, he was trying to figure it out, too. We ladled noodles in the broth, sipping from Tupperware on a busted futon, dipping shredded chicken in the bowl between us with our fingers. My memories of these meals carried me, unwaveringly, from month to wretched month. Attempting to re-conjure them gave me something to do at my most desperate. And broth has always intimidated me. Maybe it always will. The liquid grounds you. You’re gauging its temperature. You’re tasting it deeply, and now you’re taking a breath, and then you’re picking up the bowl, and you’re inhaling it, slowly, fully, and then you are gone. Sometimes, rarely, I found what I was looking for in my kitchen, after hours (days) of simmering. Usually, my chances were better out in the world. On a shotgun trip to New Orleans this summer—to figure out some paperwork for my car—I hit up the Mexican restaurant I always pass through on Carrolton. One of the waiters, a guy named Jesús, sat beside me, something he’d never done. As the guy next in line to inherit the place, he usually ate at the counter. But today, he savored a bowl of menudo, steaming by the spoonful, and the aroma had me holding my breath, biting my gums, toying with the chips and salsa. When Jesús finally asked what I wanted, after I’d watched him for what felt like eons (if not five long minutes), I told him the same thing he had, he could even just pass his bowl, and before he brought back my own serving of warmth, he grinned, and we shared that moment, the same taste on our tongues. Or when, a few months earlier, at another counter, this time in Chiyoda, a lady in a train station’s ramen shop watched me watch her eat some tsukemen. When my bowls finally came, at about half the size of hers, she actually flagged our server down to tell him something I couldn’t catch. It was another thirty seconds before I was given another batch, with twice as much broth. I beamed. I blushed. The broth was entirely delicious. And that’s when this lady—texting in one hand, tanking noodles in the other—waved her chopsticks at me, laughing, before turning back to her phone, main-lining her own bowl. When I stir my broth, I am trying to bring all of that back. Which means that I’m bringing none of it back. Which means that this will be a lifelong pursuit. How fucking impossible. How fucking perfect. A boundless banality. * But can you end a year on a positive note by saying you couldn’t accomplish a thing? That its ambition was too much for you? Entirely unattainable? And, even worse, that you knew that going in, from the very beginning, so this lack of accomplishment isn’t a bummer or even bittersweet—it just is? A few months back, my mother and I hit up this phở spot out in the suburbs, just outside of Houston. A bunch of groups huddled around us, with too many stories of their own to count: a black lady and a Latino dude that could’ve been on their very first date. Two young men chatting with the waiter in Vietnamese, with their hair dyed blonde, legs crossed and giggling. A mother with three children, who addressed all of them sharply, without looking up from her meal, but they immediately responded to everything she said, cheesing all the while, and there was warmth in her voice, and everyone in the restaurant could feel it. In our usual way of ordering out, my mother asked what I thought might be good. When I gave my recommendation, she ordered something else. I ordered the first thing. We shared. Both dishes were delicious. But when my mother finished with her bowl, she watched me eat another batch of noodles, and then a third, before she told me that the phở ga’s broth reminded her of another soup, cow foot in a broth that she used to cook back home, ladled beside rice and beans, and when I asked her what entwined them together , my mom started to tell me, after a pause, describing the holidays she’d cooked it on, and the mundane evenings too, with the pots crowded with greens, in the midst of friends and family, some since jailed or dead or relocated or just gone, until my mom’s telling waned into the silence that recollection can sometimes give you, because the thing about something that gives you comfort is that its absence can rip you from it, too. (And this was hardly a rare occurrence: once, during my crazy boi years, on a rare visit home, my mom made ackee and codfish alongside what were basically scallion pancakes, and after a minute or two of my absolute shock, my mother, entirely exasperated, unendingly gracious, told the story of the Chinese market in her childhood town, and the recipes her family lifted from the owners, including her now-fabled steamed bok choy, before that narration, too, drifted back into memory, and my mom reiterated that migration worked in mysterious ways, to stop being ridiculous, to look up from my books and towards the world they were actually talking about.) At the end of our meal, we hummed over our bowls. My mother looked at the meals of the group of women beside us. And she said, I see oxtail, pointing at the slab steaming over some rice. We’ll have to come and try that, said my mother. We’ll have to come back soon. But we still haven’t made it back. I still haven’t made the broth I’ve been searching for. Not an ounce of it. And I’ll probably never reach it, since what I’m chasing are memories, and memories are fleeting, so every pot with be full of failure—but there will always be another pot. That is, I guess, the tradeoff we make. Because here is a true thing: a good broth tastes like community. Whatever that looks like to you. When it tastes like that, it’s done. And, if home is a place and a taste and a time, what could be more difficult than conjuring it from your hands—sipping it incrementally, smashing time and space until you’ve gotten it just right. So here is how I’ll continue to chronicle the passage of time: one day, my mom and I will go back to that restaurant. Eventually, we’ll try the phở đuôi bò. That’s my internal clock. And, despite the forces working against that wish, I’ll do my best to stick around until we do, until there is another pot of broth to try, a broth that tastes like home.
The Year in the Meat Crime

Terrace House makes reality TV engrossing, ensuring a long-maligned medium and its most maligned genre are streaming their way into hearts around the world.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Uchi’s mad. First came the news that his roommates had eaten his pricey hidagyu beef. Then came a shocking discovery: the instigator of this sinister “Meat Crime” was his girlfriend Minori. We watch, our watering mouths agape, as a deliciously marbled cut of beef drives a wedge through their Tokyo group house. Relationships crumble, life trajectories nosedive and poor Uchi still can’t get a bite of that luscious ruby red steak.   [[{"fid":"6704606","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"7":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"7"}}]] For legions of Japanese followers, and a growing Western fanbase, the Meat Crime is a legendary event in the annals of Terrace House, a reality series now closing its third season on Netflix and fourth season overall. Even as this year’s latest edition introduced us to a charming new cast in the snowy resort town of Karuizawa, Uchi’s meltdown in the first Netflix season remained the show’s gateway drug, luring North American neophytes into the swelling ranks of its #TerraceHouse-repping obsessives. Thanks to an exceptionally tender, tear-spattered slab of beef, 2018 was the year I finally convinced friends and family to experience one of the most emotionally fulfilling shows on television—the year I finally convinced myself that reality TV could be more than a guilty pleasure. [[{"fid":"6704581","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] The premise is similar to shows like Jersey Shore and The Real World: six young people, ranging anywhere from their late teens to early thirties, live in a communal home and experience life lessons amid sexual intrigue. But Terrace House is subtler, and more cerebral, than its Western counterparts, unsullied by post-dated interviews, frenetic editing and other stylistic bludgeons. As the producers calmly observe their affable young cast and the stunningly appointed modernist home in which their pheromones mingle, the show blends the perky melodrama of a ‘90s rom-com with the intimate realism of a good documentary. It’s an irresistible combination, enhanced by one of the great spectacles in the Netflix canon: a panel of Japanese celebrities which cuts in three times an episode to break down the latest scenes. This Tokyo-based dream team is filled with colourful characters but dominated by three performers: Tokui, a genial comedian who revels in the on-screen romances; You, a wisecracking actress with the voice of a raspy baby; and Yamasato, a bespectacled comic who delights in mocking the Terrace House residents. Because the cast members change, making way for new residents at a time of their own choosing, the unvarying panelists and their Haute Normcore outfits become a familiar bedrock. They build the kind of sassy commentary we’d normally enjoy on Twitter into the structure of every episode. [[{"fid":"6704586","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Pair this narrative ingenuity with a visual aesthetic as crisp and elegant as the best works of Japanese cinema, and you have a show that is elevating reality television to new creative heights. Ply me with enough of the fruity Merlot that boozy cast member Seina guzzles on cold nights in Karuizawa, and I’ll even argue that Terrace House is the realization of a prophecy from 1973—the year the anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote an article for TV Guide on American Family, the PBS series widely considered the progenitor of reality television. Praising the show for its innovative union of TV and documentary film, Mead declared the emerging format “a new kind of art form,” a development “as important for our time as were the invention of drama and the novel.” [[{"fid":"6704591","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]]  For much of the past forty-five years, this seemed like a laughable assertion; reality TV has become a bastion of low culture—“the television of television,” as The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh quipped in a 2011 essay. But Mead looked increasingly prescient this year. David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, Amy Poehler’s Making It and the new season of Queer Eye upgraded the genre’s timeworn formulas with rich production values and expertly plotted storylines. “Docu-series” like Liz Garbus’s The Fourth Estate and Steve James’ America to Me offered gripping, densely layered portraits of American institutions. And then there was Terrace House, looming above them all, a rising sun in a newly fertile field. After another year with Tokui, You, Yamasato and the house members, reality TV seems every bit as engrossing as my favourite HBO dramas, every bit as ambitious as the theatrical docs that received such high praise this summer, with every kitchen clash and domestic love triangle, every spirited yelp of “kawaii!”11Terrace House’s unofficial motto: the Japanese word for “cute.” As a “Cuteness Studies” scholar at Tokyo’s Gakugei University explained in a recent CNN article, “[kawaii] communicates the unabashed joy found in the undemanding presence of innocent, harmless, adorable things.” *  When Netflix launched Terrace House in the fall of 2015, the show coincided with a disturbing spectacle: the rising popularity of the former host of The Apprentice. Three years and countless traumas later, the “Reality TV Presidency” is one of the hottest buzz phrases in politics, summoned by New York Times reporters, cable news pundits and high-level government officials as they struggle to make sense of his dysfunctional White House. In this climate, Terrace House flips the script, inverting the traditional dynamic between reality TV and escapism. Instead of offering a voyeuristic window onto dumpster fire behaviour, the show serves as a blissful respite from a news cycle in which that behaviour is everywhere. Some viewers compare the show to watching ASMR videos. I always think about hygge, that Danish concept of cozy well-being beloved to readers of Kinfolk. Whether we’re in the cedar-paneled corridors of the house in Karuizawa or the homey confines of the panel’s studio, Terrace House feels like a safe space. [[{"fid":"6704646","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"10":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"10"}}]] That’s because it’s a place where kindness reigns and earnest emotion is cherished. Cast member Taishi strides into Terrace House: Aloha State, the show’s season in Hawaii, with the goal of finding “a love worth dying for.” Seina arrives in Karuizawa determined to “find [her] last love.” The incredibly formal courting rituals feel dated in the age of Tinder but it’s hard not to succumb to these gentle heartthrobs and the delight the panelists take in them. When was the last time you watched reality TV and felt as Tokui did after this season’s ice-skating date between Shion, a down-to-earth model, and Tsubasa, his hockey-playing crush: “It cleansed my soul”?  [[{"fid":"6704636","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"8":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"8"}}]] On dark nights, clouded by Trumpian gloom, Terrace House can almost seem utopian, a hope-restoring lifeline to a world of communal goodwill. It’s not a show without conflict and beef—literally, in the case of the Meat Crime—but there’s something deeply reassuring about watching best buddies set common goals and frenemies talk out their differences. “It’s really great we can inspire each other,” an R&B singer named Shohei gushed on a recent episode, proudly informing his housemates that his band was topping the charts. As the cast members cheered in the Japanese dusk, it was hard not to agree. In a year spent lurching from headline to headline, struggling to channel my rage, the show’s celebration of friendship and love was a joy and an escape.  *  The cast of Terrace House started 2018 with a venerable Japanese tradition: the late-night slurping of noodles, meant to signify long life at the dawn of a new year. The shots of glistening soba were verses in a thrilling new language: the lip-smacking esperanto of global reality TV. Japan’s edible rituals have always been part of the show’s cross-cultural appeal but they’ve never received more loving attention than they have in Karuizawa. The sniffing of an onion was an early season sight gag; a bowl of purple curry spawned a multi-episode meme. When an aspiring chef named Yuudai underseasoned a soup, and made the hunt for mediocre bagels the centrepiece of a date, the hapless nineteen-year-old was cooked. He had insulted the twin pillars of the Terrace House community: the relentless pursuit of personal improvement, and the bonding of friends and lovers through cooking, eating and drinking. The dinnertime meals improved after Yuudai departed the show, but his early exit dashed our hopes for a sequel to the Meat Crime. [[{"fid":"6704596","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"5":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"5"}}]] Three years after it first aired on Netflix, that burst of domestic mayhem still has the power to shock; it’s one of the few moments in the Terrace House saga where the communal backbone wobbles. But it doesn’t break—not even close. With the help of Minori’s sister and a well-timed batch of Valentine’s cookies, Uchi and Minori patch things up and leave the show a couple. Like virtually every resident that has passed through the halls of Terrace House—even the feckless Yuudai—they are sent off with a proper meal.   [[{"fid":"6704601","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"6":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"6"}}]] If their Instagram accounts are any indication, the show’s former cast members still do this from time to time, meeting in Tokyo bars for food, beer and friendship. With the obvious caveat that these are reality performers, skillfully crafting their personal brands, they continue to project the authentic sense that life on Terrace House was nourishing; that for them as much as us at home, it was more than empty calories. That’s not how most of us perceive reality television. That’s not how I perceived it before I watched this show. I saw the genre much as forty London-area women did in a 2008 study by British media scholars: when asked to describe their feelings while watching shows like Big Brother and Extreme Makeover, the most prominent phrase in their transcripts was “sad.” They used the word in its melancholic sense but also in the judgmental way we’ve been hearing it under Trump. The people on screen seemed pathetic to them: sad with an exclamation point. As Terrace House wraps up this winter, I’m shedding that judgment and cynicism. I’m embracing the sort of buoyant, earnest sentiment you see on New Age social media. #TerraceHouse makes me feel #gratitude. The #MeatCrime makes me feel #blessed. When the last cast members leave the throbbing quiet of the house in Karuizawa, I will feel as Tsubasa did during one of this season’s hankie-ravaging farewells: “I’m so glad to have met you all.”  [[{"fid":"6704641","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"9":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"9"}}]]
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
The Year in White Motherhood

Should we not be talking more openly about the desperate need for black and brown mothers to be included in the conversation about what motherhood looks like in 2018?

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I always imagined I would have children, but less as a deeply ingrained maternal desire and more as part of a childhood fantasy about how I would escape myself. While the outline of my childhood was being sketched by the alienation of immigration and the dysfunction of divorce, I began to idolize the white families I saw on television. Their lives stood in such stark contrast to my own, it was hard not to be at first agonized and then mesmerized by their wholesome routines, their double incomes and their simple lives untouched by racism, poverty, violence and instability. I became especially envious and enamoured of the mothers, women who were unfazed and unrattled by the cruelty of life. Like Maggie Seaver, whose easy laugh was never betrayed by the sinking sobriety of unpaid bills, or Angela Bower, whose conversations about sex or dating were free from the stifling shadow of cultural shame. They were women whose freedom was always underscored by the lightness of their presence and the precision with which their domestic problems resolved themselves in a half hour. And most importantly, they were so completely different from my own mother, whose heaviness could fill a room. Who struggled to make marriage and motherhood work, worlds away from her own mother and anything that resembled familiarity or stability. As immigrants, we seemed to live just out of frame. There was nobody on TV who looked like me and definitely nobody on TV who looked like my mother. Instead of glistening white Nancy Meyers kitchens that served as the familial centerpiece of large detached homes, our cramped kitchens tended to be situated in a funny corner in the kind of purpose-built apartments that are manufactured in bulk. There were no bake sales or PTA meetings or heart-to-hearts set to treacly elevator music and resolved with a hug. My childhood was loud and chaotic and messy. It seemed like the only way out of my problems was through a middle-class family of my own, one that at least mimicked the class and race of the ones I’d been escaping with on television.   Now, two decades later, I am a mother myself, grasping for time and money, alienated by the oppressive barriers of my once escapist fantasy. And asking why the lens of modern motherhood is still so pointedly white-washed. When maternal outcomes for women of colour are three times more dire than for white women, should we not be talking more openly about the desperate need for black and brown mothers to be centred in the conversation about what motherhood looks like in 2018?  Even as we redefine representation, even as social media has democratized who gets to be seen and heard, why do none of the mothers on TV look like me? Why are the popular Facebook groups and Instagram accounts like Milky Mommas, CupofJo, Dooce or MommyShorts—modern outlets for connection between millennial mothers—still overwhelmingly run by and representing middle-class white women? Where the matriarchs of outdated television shows once represented the ideals of suburban motherhood, these new digital outlets embrace a neo-liberal “Lean In” mentality. A girlboss motherhood that prides itself on the type of natural, organic, stress-free, Pinterested parenting that can be easily and quantifiably commodified.   * In every conceivable way, your first pregnancy is an act of complete surrender to the unknown. Nearly every day brings an alien emotion or sensation that you simply have to give in to. And you shoulder those seemingly endless new feelings knowing it’s all leading up to this monumental moment that you only vaguely understand. Towards the end of my pregnancy the most pressing and urgent question I had for my obstetrician was, what does labour feel like? It’s an act so specific and yet so completely indescribable that the best way my own doctor could sum it up was by telling me, “When you’re in labour, trust me, you’ll know.” And, of course, she was right. When it hit, and hit is really the best way to describe that initial wave, it hit hard and fast. My water broke prematurely, so the first time we went into the hospital I described my contractions as manageable. I remember the intake nursing laughing at me and telling us to come back when I was in tears. Two hours later we returned and my face was damp not from crying, but from howling in agony. I felt completely feral and out of control. My body did not feel like my own. The waves of crushing pain erased time and space and even though I knew I was physically in the room I felt like I had fallen away from myself.  Yet those first few hours are seared in my memory as traumatic not because of the pain, but because I felt I had been robbed of my agency. Rather than focusing on bringing this baby into the world, I had been reminded that empathy is not something women of colour can take for granted and humanity is something we’re always fighting for. I had to plead and beg with my stoic white nurse, a blonde who echoed the glossy teens I envied in my TV-obsessed youth, while enduring that pain. As I bellowed for an epidural while hopelessly bouncing on a yoga ball with my husband rubbing the small of back so hard that a small friction burn was starting to form, she smugly coached me to “breathe through it.” In the end, a shift change was my salvation. Within 30 minutes of receiving a new nurse, a young black woman miraculously named Angel, I had my epidural and, finally, someone who I knew would be an advocate. Angel immediately centred my comfort and put me at ease and it felt so important and meaningful to me that my new nurse was a woman of colour, someone to whom the language of my pain was not foreign. It’s a small example of a larger problem of women’s self-advocacy in labour and delivery, starkly articulated by Serena Williams in an interview earlier this year with Vogue. In the piece, her traumatic post-natal experience. Shortly after giving birth to her daughter, the tennis player, who has a history of blood clots and was off her anticoagulants at the time, was left gasping for breath. She immediately felt something was wrong and raised the alarm about a potential pulmonary embolism. Williams knew exactly what medical tests she needed. She is one of the most famous athletes in the world, able to afford the best possible healthcare. But still, a nurse disregarded Williams’s initial outcry, delaying her access to the care she required. The close margins of her survival illustrate the betrayals of women still happening in the healthcare system in 2018. Most maternal deaths are preventable, and yet the rates of maternal death in the US continue to rise. Roughly 700 women die as a result of childbirth every year and the vast majority of those women are black. According to one report, blood clots are one of the leading causes of maternal death for black women. And yet here was Serena Williams, just narrowly avoiding becoming a deadly statistic. She was able to successfully advocate for her life, but why was it such a fight? Racial bias in the medical industry leaves women’s pain chronically undertreated, rendering us, in our most vulnerable moments, without a voice. * So where are our voices being heard? Social media, meant to be the great equalizer of stories, has been a boon for the commercialization of motherhood, creating an instantly recognizable mom brand. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry with conferences headlined by celebrities such as Kristen Bell, multi-day affairs that promise to show women how to connect their marketing to motherhood to maximize engagement and guarantee sponsors. Only a handful of the speakers at this year’s Mom 2.0 conference are women of colour.  “We're missing the voices of moms of colour in general, and we're missing an opportunity to change perceptions and stereotypes around moms of colour,” says Bee Quammie who, feeling a glaring lack of voices that reflected her own mothering experience as a black woman, started her own blog. She’s not alone: there are upwards of four million mommy blogs in North America. But despite this statistic, in an Onalytica ranking of the top 25 US mom blogs, only four are written by women of colour, and none by non-binary or trans parents. The story of motherhood is still being overwhelmingly told, and represented, by cisgender white women. On Facebook, mom groups promise a safer space, a welcoming and communal approach to child-rearing. But even here, it’s mostly middle-class white women who gather, wondering aloud how to offer their urban spawn a “diverse” experience, describing exposure to other cultures with the same lexicon you would use to place an Amazon order. These spaces aren’t structured to facilitate intersectional conversations that reflect the reality of women of colour. When conversations in these groups turn to subjects like race and class they inevitably become polarized, pushing women who have differing experiences out of the larger online community. I’ve seen questions about what to pay for childcare turn into class-based lectures that shame and silence women who don’t fit the middle-class mould. Conversations about diversity inevitably centre white women and portray people of colour as learning opportunities for their privileged children rather than as human beings. We become otherized even in spaces that attempt community and alleyship. The alternative is to seek out specific groups that speak to our experiences as women of colour, but that can lead to narrow and solipsistic conversations that don’t foster a true exchange. When I was lying awake night after night, breastfeeding my newborn into the twilight hours, I would aimlessly scroll through my Instagram’s explore feed to keep my shrinking brain occupied. Because, during my pregnancy, I had followed a bunch of pregnancy bloggers and accounts, my explore feed was almost exclusively baby and mom-to-be content. At first it was comforting, but then it was sharply alienating. These women didn’t reflect my reality, in their glossy kitchens, with perfectly prepped organic meals and designer baby clothes and immaculately maintained post-baby bodies. They were the Mom 2.0 version of the Maggie Seavers and the Cindy Walshes. I had managed to escape the poverty of my childhood, but I no longer wanted to escape myself or the reality of parenting offered up by own mother. Suddenly an immigrant again, having recently moved to the UK with my husband and baby, I find myself leaning on the lessons in motherhood I learned from my mom. I’ve embraced the ragged parts of my reality that have shaped the type of mother I’ve become. One who can summon resilience in the face of isolation and struggle, and patience in the midst of chaos. And like my own mother, one who manages to find light amongst the heaviness of everyday life.  Now those perfect TV and social media moms don’t seem so ideal, bound to the false narratives they’ve crafted for themselves. But I finally feel free.
The Year in Taxidermy

I’ve been trying to scrape something free and nothing’s budged. It’s possible I’ve scraped out all there is to give. What is the thing I was looking to salvage?

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. A good way to think about taxidermy is to imagine you’re God. Take the dead thing and resurrect it. Shape it in your own image. I grew up in an evangelical household. I know all about mortification of the flesh, the zombie special-feature of a body rising from the dead, the marvel of the reanimated holy corpse. What I needed to know was how to resuscitate a thing that I’d killed. Taxidermy provided some of those answers. There were processes and procedures. I wanted to perform miracles, scrape out everything wrong with my life. I wanted to gut myself. I knew I could not. Listen, it’s rough to need gentleness when all you’ve ever wanted to wield is a jackhammer. * This is the year I finished writing a book. It was about taxidermy, sure, but it was also about intimacy. Much like those mounted animals, people are forever trying to preserve their memories. Dorothy Allison says, “change, when it comes, cracks everything open,” and as usual, she’s right. Nobody ever wants change, but apparently it’s a necessary part of the human emotional process. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to resuscitate things that didn’t want to live. I know I can be impulsive. I want to bust things apart, rush, feel something spill wildly out of me like a burst dam. Taxidermy says: hey, slow it down. Chill. We’ve got a lifetime, buddy. * I’m talking with a woman on the dating app about taxidermy and she says “don’t be morbid.” I talk with another woman on the dating app about taxidermy and she says, “I have an antler I can show you” and I say “is that a pick-up line.” Here’s another woman on the dating app and we joke about “mounting,” then another woman on the dating app, another another another, here we are in the hotel room, here we are at the bar, here we are in the hotel room, the bar, the hotel. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but goddamn I’m gonna keep trying this same shit out, anyway. We’re preserving the idea that I’ll remain a solitary, stationary beast. I’m fortifying my meaty interior with felt and padding, wires jammed into my limbs so I’m posed perfectly for photos. Hey, we’ve got all night. We’ve got all night. * A friend brings me a gator skull as a gift. Drunk in the Taco Bell drive thru, I kiss it directly on its bony mouth, leaving behind a smear of lipstick that bloodies the teeth. I wanna feed it a Crunchwrap Supreme. I wanna take it on a moonlit date, that’s how much I love this ode to dead Florida. After my friend drives me home, I set the skull on a shelf. It’s a reminder that I’ve somehow managed to write a book, something just as purposefully constructed as taxidermy. Words stitched together. A solid spine. I’ve thought about taxidermy the way I’ve thought about my own body. A site of violence, a thing I’ve curated, tended, flesh that other people have touched and marveled at, an organism hollowed out, rubbed, constructed with purpose. Taxidermy is queering; it is an othering, and that is also me, a thing queered up and fucked up and positioned with intent. Writing a novel about taxidermy meant that I was thinking about dead things all day long. I researched topics that probably landed me on several government watch lists. Here are notes for the best way to dissolve flesh. Look, a website about different kinds of hunting knives. I’d like to know the best way to dislocate a jaw, thank you very much. How do tendons connect at the joint and what kind of upper body strength would it require to cut a throat? There are so many ways to dismember a body. It’s much harder to put everything back together again. * When I touch my pets, I’m palpating the shapes of their skulls beneath their fur. Feeling for their small, hardworking bones. Admiring their litheness. I think about what it would be like to taxidermy them, if they leave me—not if, I always have to remind myself of this—not if, but when. If you scrape out an animal, you’re removing the meat. The blood. The heart. Everything must go. You’re divesting the body of something essential, the living parts, which get chucked in the garbage. All the best stuff inevitably rots. * I’m not gonna lie, it worries me that I relate so fully to the taxidermied squirrel I bought off eBay for nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents, not including shipping and handling. The squirrel rides a bicycle—Barbie’s pink beach cruiser, specifically. The squirrel is holding a miniature beer and he’s got a face like mine, I think; one that a boy in high school once described as “space ratty.” I love this little monster, hell on two wheels, wearing a tank top and cut-off jean shorts. We’ve got a lot in common. We both look like we’re ready to bite someone. “If I’m writing about taxidermy, I should own some,” is what I told myself, but when I looked at that animal all I could think about were the ways I’ve stalled out my life because I can’t deal with emotional upheaval. Look here, see the dead things I’ve preserved: my failed marriage, my severed relationship with my family, Twitter memes that have been over for months. Friendships I’ve maimed because I don’t know how to say I want something more. Tell me how to resurrect the things I once loved, I think, because I can’t imagine loving anything else ever again. I set my squirrel on a shelf high enough the dogs can’t eat it. I look at that squirrel on the bike and admire it, but I also have a constant compulsion to dissect it. I wanna find the seam where he opens, root around inside the cavity, finally understand what I’ve been missing. A woman texts that she wants to know my unknowable parts, and I tell her that’s the thing about unknowable parts, they’re unknowable, and then I lose that number. It’s better to just be funny, I think. The great thing about a joke is that there are a million ways to tell one, but you’re always looking for the same result: a laugh. A joke is the most taxidermied thing there is. * I watch videos of do-it-yourself taxidermy, go on message boards and read about fleshing machines, buy ancient how-to breakthrough manuals I read floating drunk in the bathtub. Beer drips condensation down the page, licking a sad tear down a butchered deer’s caped face. There are so many different tools you can buy. Scrapers, tanners, acid baths. If you wanna open up a body, you’ve got a lot of options. Taxidermy is a memory. It doesn’t replace the thing it used to be. Part of the appeal of taxidermy is that it serves as a way to keep that one good moment with you, forever. * When someone says “tender,” I flinch. It means openness, a wounding, something that shocks your nerves raw. Other people hear that word and think of the softness of two palms pressing. Tender like an open mouth, waiting for a kiss. It’s not a flaying; it’s infinitely delicate. Gentleness scares me more than anything. It’s so easy to turn something tender into something tenderized. To make the hard thing soft means anyone can smash it to bits. Oh, it has been a year of being the taxidermist, but maybe it has also been the year of being taxidermied. I’ve been trying to scrape something free and nothing’s budged. It’s possible I’ve scraped out all there is to give. What is the thing I was looking to salvage? * Sitting outside my house with that taxidermied squirrel, I listened to the scree-scree of the cicada bombarding the oaks. I touched that squirrel’s whole body. The tail. The head with its liquid black eyes. It looked alive. It looked dead. It looked somewhere in the middle. It looked like it couldn’t decide what it wanted, either. I fully sympathized. In this year of taxidermy, friend, I looked inside and found hollowness, sure, but there was also room for growth. Places that could be filled. I am repurposing the animal. I will do it gently, carefully. I will do it with love.
Skin Worn Thin

Every time someone sees me as either white or black, I wonder, is passing an act of capitulation, or resistance? A rejection of identity, or of identification?

Every time I crossed the courtyard, walked past the well in the corner and slipped out of the baby blue gate nestled into the high brick wall that surrounded my Chadian host-family’s house, I instantly became nasara. It’s a Ngambay word that means both “foreigner” and “white-person” at the same time. A little pack of children would follow me down the red-dirt street, chanting “nah-sa-rah, nah-sa-rah” and laughing.    During my first weeks in Moundou I had protested once—in jest—to Sem, a balding evangelical pastor with a belly and a deep laugh, who was my NGO’s main contact in the town. “You know my Mom is black, right?” I said to him, from the passenger seat of his SUV. He chuckled, and simultaneously looked away from the dirt road as he accelerated his Toyota that sported a Christian fish sign and an American flag sticker on its bumper. “Yes, well,” he paused and pointed to my bare forearm, then looked me in the eyes, my blue eyes. “Just look at you, and then look at us!” He laughed again, then he turned his head back to the road and blared the car’s horn angrily at a motorcycle that was approaching the intersection from our left. He hit the accelerator again, forcing the moto, or clando, as they are called locally, to swerve aside as we blew past in a cloud of dust.   * My friend Frederic worked at the largest employer in Moundou, a textiles company named CotonTchad, where he shoveled coal into furnaces for six hours a day. The company ran a “club,” which consisted of a few cabanas clustered around a tennis court that hadn’t been played on in thirty years, and pool that lived a permanent dry season. It had pizza and free internet. Chadians with cars, and nasaras, went there. A few weeks after I had arrived in Moundou, Frederic took me to Club CotonTchad. The city hadn’t passed into dry season yet, and so the red-earth roads were jagged with ruts made by rainstorms and our bicycles jostled and bumped until we got to “Rond Point de la Femme” traffic circle, then turned onto a paved main street that lead to across the Logone River, and eventually to N’Djamena. As we neared the river, the look and feel of the city dripped away to a dozen cracking, once-cream colored concrete houses set back on lawns bordered by bushes in place of spike-topped front walls. This was the old area that in colonial times had been reserved for the French. There would have been a barricade at the beginning of the road, and Chadians would have been denied entry. Now, the houses belonged to CotonTchad, and where they finally ended, the club sat perched against the banks of the river. The green uniformed guard at Club CotonTchad’s gate did his own double take at me when I dismounted my bicycle and unclasped my helmet. He looked at me curiously, this nasara on a bicycle instead of in a car, but stepped aside and waved me in. I passed with a Parisian-lilted “bonjour,” and he said “bonjour” back with the Chadian r that rolls off the tongue. A few steps in, I realized that Frederic was no longer beside me, and turned around to see that he had been stopped by the same guard who had let me pass unchallenged just moments before. I went back. “It’s okay,” I told him, “Frederic’s just showing me around. We’re going to go in and probably grab a Coca-Cola.”  And so, Frederic and I walked into the heart of Club CotonTchad, where its post-imperial rust was framed by manicured grass—the kind with thick, sandpapery blades that can be coaxed out of a desiccated ground with only mildly exorbitant water use. We sat in plastic chairs at a round plastic table, flecked with our own sweat. It was pushing past thirty Celsius. I ordered the two most expensive Cokes in Moundou. Frederic poured his into a glass, I drank mine from the bottle. The Coke left a saccharine film in my mouth. Then we biked home in the rain, and even in the downpour I felt hot and dirty. On the way back an unknown stranger stopped us on the side of the road in the rain. He yelled something in Ngambay, and Frederic tried to calm him down. He looked at me then, in his stained and torn green shirt, gestured toward my helmet, and spoke to me in French. “A white man in Africa, he’s permitted everything,” he said with anger. “But what if I were to go to Europe, to France—what would happen then?” Biking away, in a country where I was unquestionably privileged and seen as white, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was passing, and that maybe, just maybe, this man was the only other one who knew. In Chad, I couldn't have it both ways, couldn't slip into the well-defined role of being white when it suited me, and then set myself apart from it when it did not. In Chad I was white. * Passing for white is a well anchored, though marginal, phenomenon in American racial history. There was never a uniform definition of who “counted” as black in the United States, alternating between one quarter ancestry (Virginia’s designation of “mulatto” in 1822), and the “one-drop rule” that spread throughout southern states during the Jim Crow era.  Even as late as 1982, Susie Guillory Phipps, who identified as white, but whose great-great-great-great-grandmother was black, brought a lawsuit against the state of Louisiana to overturn the law forcing her birth certificate to declare her to be black. The law—a 1970 update from a previous one whose standard was “a trace of Negro ancestry”—had established 1/32 as the new color line, and state genealogists had determined that Susie Phipps was 3/32 black. She lost her case. “It’s funny about passing,” the 1920s author Nella Larsen writes in one of the earliest novels to engage the phenomenon, “we disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.” At the time when she was writing, between 2,500 and 30,000 African Americans with light enough skin and physical features that allowed them to “pass” unquestioned into white society often did.  Adrian Piper, ambiguously pigmented and a conceptual artist, writes in an essay, “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” that “In the African-American community, we do not ‘out’ people who are passing as white in the European American community,” perhaps in recognition of a decision born in some sort of pain.  Internalized racism, some might taunt. Pity, others might respond. The desire for “whiteness” shows up throughout our history as a persistent response to racism, or our notions of beauty, or a desire to belong, to be privy to the intimate moments of the leitkulture through the unacknowledged silence that acknowledges you as just that. And those moments can happen, they can buzz in and out of your life, leaving you flecked with power and its seductiveness one moment, and then a sense of disembodiment in the next. One day you can grab your coffee from the counter of a Parisian café, cringing as the barista asks where you’re from, and then replies—curiously, innocently, unaware of what her words mean in the context of a country that has in its history counted people as fractions—that you don’t look cent pourcent américain, and the next day your friend’s uncle can tell you that he’s actually been to Ohio once for business, to Cincinnati, where he stayed in a motel that was kind of scary, he explains, leaning in and dropping his voice low, because the whole place was—almost to a whisper now—filled with black people.  It can be tauntingly, cloyingly sweet to pass into the club in silence, unchallenged. * The word passing entered my lexicon in the early days of 1999, when I was eight years old. We had had five snow days in a row, which was almost unheard of. Every night we kept putting our pajamas on inside out for luck, and every night it kept raging snow and ice. With the days off, I had read Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s account of the way he chemically darkened his skin and then intentionally passed for black while traveling through the deep south in the 1950s. A sprawling, abandoned lot sat across the street from my house, next to a meatpacking plant that made the whole block smell like sausage on Wednesday afternoons. The neighborhood was a little mecca of multiculturalism in the middle of a ruined Midwestern steel town; that didn't mean it was tranquil. In a city split by its river between a predominantly white west side and a black east side, the neighborhood, which fell just west of the river, was seeing its own racial divisions revealed and exacerbated by a nascent onslaught of gentrification. Every block-club meeting became a battle royale for the soul of the neighborhood, roiling with the tensions between the (white) “social justice gentrifiers,” the (white) “urban warrior gentrifiers” who had followed them a decade later, and the minority residents who preceded both and were slowly being priced out of the few square miles of city they called home. Yet, the neighborhood had still only rounded the first base of gentrification. Though dotted with half-finished half-million dollar “townhomes,” it still hosted a shabby, peeling Catholic Worker house and community theater in the southern half, a big open-air food market to the east, a gay spa and gay nightclub around the corner from my street, the projects on the northern edge by the lake. Each part of the neighbourhood had its characters. There was Shorty, a sometimes—no, mostly—homeless handyman who once saved an elderly couple from a burning house and collected his Citizen of the Year award in paint-dripped cargo shorts. “Bubby” Hawk, a teenage guy who swore incessantly, had a trick-bike pimped out with neon lights and gold handlebars, and who set off bottle rockets next to the browned-out carcasses of the old cars in his house’s yard. The screech from the bottle rockets upset the retired judge and World War II veteran-turned-pacifist down the street because the sound took him back to Normandy, where he had lain shot in the back. A well-off, white investor, who would eventually develop the vacant lot into fortress-like townhomes, loved peeling down the street in his red, vintage Ferrari and would put up the neighborhood’s sole “Bush/Cheney” sign in front of his house. An evangelical pastor, who lived at the intersection of Bubby’s home and the lot, had painted in slightly off-level stenciled red letters, “The John 3:16 Building” on his large but aging house. The Catholic Workers, with a completely different interpretation of the “Red Letters,” protested the Cleveland Air Show (or more precisely, the military presence at it) every summer with signs, songs, and street theater. And our neighborhood mailman (also a Catholic deacon), hosted a legendary fall potluck party in his backyard that, without fail, degenerated into fairly serious drinking with a light touch of pot after midnight.   That winter, the lot was still empty, and a pickup kept plowing the gravel circle in the middle, which meant that the snowbanks it created kept getting higher and higher, reinforced every time it stormed ice. We tunneled them out and ringed the tunnels with snow-forts. Other kids decided they would knock the forts down, and kick the tunnels in. As they chased me into my house, the words they shouted stuck. “Get whitey!” they yelled. “Yeah, let’s jump this little white boy’s ass.” They had no idea that a few years later, when I became a pre-teen, my mother and I would come close to having the talk. “Look at me,” she would say one day, as if the thought had been squatting at the back of her mind, and she wanted to express it before it got lost. “When you walk out of a store, don’t keep your hands in your pocket. I saw you do that the other day. Things might be different when you’re out with your father, but you don’t want to give anyone any reason or excuse to accuse you of shoplifting.”  “You’re a young black man,” she added.  “Even if your friends end up fine, you’re the one who will end up in trouble.”  But in the winter of 1999, at not quite nine years old, the trouble on my mind was literally on the outside of a glass door, looking in. As the group of boys angrily pelted the house and cars with snow, I held up my middle finger at them, felt my heart beat, stared, and determined to myself that there was extraordinarily little that I had in common with them, or wanted to have in common with them. I knew that outside that door, I was physically powerless. As a product of an educated, leftist social circle, I knew—perversely—that my power, a fundamentally greater power, was structural. It lay in my ability to navigate with confidence and ease the codes, institutions, and expectations of polite, white, society. The choice between power and powerlessness seemed so clear. I wore successive pairs of neon yellow running shoes when I was young; my group of neighborhood friends (three white, one black) told me they were “pretty white.” I got good grades, and to my classmates, that too was “pretty white.” The syntax I used, the way I formed words between my tongue and teeth. Pretty white. My favorite song was “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters, I was building a desktop computer on the weekends, every year I reread practically the entire Tolkien canon. It was all pretty white pretty white pretty white. I wrote about the yellow shoes in my common app essay and got into Amherst College. Because I had checked off the box on the demographic page of the PSAT that moved me from National Merit Semifinalist to National Achievement Scholar, I got to cash my $2,500 check and didn’t have to do work-study. And I felt like an impostor, like no matter what I wore, it would always be a disguise. I had crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and grown up reading books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I had watched Amistad and newsreels of firehoses pinning protesters against walls while police dogs snapped at their feet and officers bashed their heads in with billy clubs. I had gone to teach-ins about the Children’s March, summer social justice camps about race and class and urban poverty, learned about Ida B. Wells and stepped into sanctuaries that had welcomed Martin Luther King. I knew the lyrics to "Go Down Moses," and had celebrated Juneteenth.  And still, I thought, what right did my clear blue eyes, the ones that got me stopped in public by middle aged women, that brought compliments from security guards and pre-9/11 trips to the cockpit from flight attendants, what right did those eyes have to inhabit someone else’s struggle, someone else’s pain? It was only years later that I would learn about the myriad moments of discrimination my mother had hidden from me while I was growing up. Like the neighbors who had eventually stopped their children from playing with me when I was five. “Not the chocolate ones,” she had overheard the woman say to her daughter, Tabitha. Or how despite an extremely high score on my entrance exam to Saint Ignatius High School, I had been “overlooked” for the honor’s program until my mother had intervened with an admissions officer. The school, she told me just recently, had a history of doing that to minority students. * Across geography and time, human cultures have found common ground in their unease with things that are liminal—things that can’t easily be classed and thus neatly ordered. Mary Douglas writes about this in her 1966 anthropology classic, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, where she dissects cleanliness and uncleanliness, forbidden foods, and things that make us feel uneasy. These are things that straddle definitions, exist between two categories, like animals that cleaveth the hoof but cheweth not the cud. Philip Roth tells us why his main character in The Human Stain, Coleman Silk, decides to forsake his identity and pass for—become?—a white Jew. “All he’d ever wanted since earliest childhood was to be free: not black, not even white—just on his own and free.” But he can’t be just on his own and free, and so he decides that there is at least more freedom to be had by being white. Coleman Silk decides not to be liminal, not to be a walking, living taboo. Is passing an act of capitulation, or resistance? A rejection of identity, or of identification? The challenge and irony put before those who pass as white is that white is an unspoken norm. Successive waves of immigrants have arrived in the United States and acquired whiteness. The Irish needed not apply, but then they became white. Italians, ostracized and Catholic—they too became white.  There is history and heritage in being Scottish or Swedish, Hungarian or Polish, or any other European ethnicity traditionally associated with white skin. White, though—is it anything other than a stand-in for power? A definition for something that needs not be defined, but simply is? Whiteness is never the identified half of a mixed identity. As a girlfriend once observantly pointed out, I have never, ever, reflexively referred to myself as “half-white,” a linguistic construction that is itself active, rather than just is. To paraphrase Larsen, it’s funny about whiteness—in order to claim it, passers have to racialize it, define it, give it some sort of mass and shape. They have to “act white.” But is it even possible to pin down an ontological whiteness? * By April, Chad’s dry season, I had to lean my arm way down over the edge of the well, grasping the frayed ends of the rope with fingertips, in order to lower the leather sack down far enough to touch the surface of the water and slowly slip beneath. Dry season near the equator is a series of sun-forced strabismic glances. Months of cursing the sun and wiping your brow repeatedly, until you could swear that the skin there had been worn thin.   One day just after dry season had passed, after water had finally shot down from the sky with such force that it kicked sand up into the air and shook mangoes from trees, I was walking home from the market with two Chadian friends. We stepped to the side of the road to get out of the way of a motorcycle, whose driver sped by in a cloud of dust, his djelleba puffing out around him; a chimera, fat with wind. Because we had moved, we were close enough to two little girls sitting on the side of the road to hear them speak. I couldn’t understand their Ngambay, but they were giggling. One of my friends burst into a big, open-mouth laugh. “Those girls,” he told me. “One said, ‘Look, there goes the nasara’. And the other one said, ‘No, he’s not a nasara, he just looks like one. He’s really Chadian on the inside.’”
Death in the Delta

When the Gaias were murdered, Mississippi lost one of the finest guitarists in a generation and a well-loved daughter, sister and friend. Decades later, the slayings still haunt the Delta.

It was not like Gene Gaia to be late. On the evening of September 5, 1975, several young men in a rock band called Furthermore traveled to the small Mississippi Delta city of Ruleville to play a high school dance. They met at the Ruleville Youth Center, set their gear up and waited for show time. It was a Friday. The guys were in good spirits. But as the sky darkened and a crowd of teenagers gathered, their guitarist had still not shown up. A twenty-two-year-old with long, brown hair and intense eyes, Gaia was the band’s de facto leader. As a  musician he had wide-ranging interests, something reflected in Furthermore’s unique sound. The group played extended loops of music that would begin, say, with a Chuck Berry number before moving into some Miles Davis and then into some David Bowie, closing with several measures of Stravinsky. Gaia wrote sheet music for the compositions. He had learned to take pieces of music that on the surface seemed to oppose each other, and stitch them together in ways that left no seams showing. He was a devoted guitarist. Musicians who knew his music call him one of the finest guitarists to come out of the Mississippi Delta in a generation, and he almost always arrived first for Furthermore gigs. Mary Gaia, his seventeen-year-old wife, would often be at his side. They had married in spring and lived in an isolated old house about thirty miles west of Ruleville, down a long dirt road, in the middle of acres and acres of farm fields. Late summer rain storms had come to the Delta that week. Some of Gene’s bandmates thought the roads out there might have flooded, or that they might have had car trouble, leaving the couple stranded at home. At some point someone called Gene’s mother in Rosedale, a city along the Mississippi River. Jean Gaia said the last time she had seen her son was two days earlier, on his twenty-second birthday. That night, the other members of Furthermore left Ruleville with Gaia on their minds. He had never missed a gig. “He was a true bandmate,” Chuck Kimes, the band’s bassist, said recently. “‘Something’s bad wrong here’ is what I thought.”  * Gene Gaia grew up in Rosedale, a place connected to the crossroads blues legend Robert Johnson sang about, said to be the last Mississippi city to get dial telephone service, where a train known as The Owl passed through. One childhood friend said, “Gene appeared in Rosedale,” making it sound like he walked out of a clump of cypress trees near the town. The truth is his parents’ marriage fell apart. They had been living in Memphis. Jean Gaia moved back to her hometown with her only child, six-year-old Gene. A divorced mother approaching forty, she likely had nowhere else to go. Why the marriage between Eugene Louis Gaia II and Jean Gaia failed is unknown. Hard luck, though, stayed in Gaia II’s pocket. He was an Italian-American whose parents owned a Beale Street liquor store. His mother died after being shot during an armed robbery at the store in 1968. He had a series of businesses himself, including a nightclub. “Like everything else he owned,” a distant relative said, “it went under, too.” Gene Gaia had toy soldiers at home he did not mind sharing and fit in fine in Rosedale, a small-town, early 1960s scene, where boys played downtown near the Talisman, the local theater, or out along the levee. Mothers called the boys home at dusk for dinner and when Gene began second grade, he had a group of friends. As he got older, though, Gene’s gaze fell more toward the ends of his shoes. Part of this was Gene, reserved by nature, preferring his own company to anyone else’s. It could also have been related to the first bloom of social awareness that comes at the onset of the teenage years. The subtle lines that separate classes are adhered to in the Mississippi Delta. In Rosedale, where roughly two thousand people lived in the early 1960s, those lines were easy to make out. Gene could see his small family was not part of the Delta’s upper crust of lawyers, doctors and real estate men. Nor was he among the prominent farming families whose surnames signaled good lineage. He was an only child with a strange last name from somewhere else who lived with his single mother, a teller at Valley Bank.  They lived in a small home on a shaded stretch in a residential neighborhood of Rosedale. Phillip Taylor, the son of a crop duster, lived nearby. He and Gene were the same age and often gathered as teenagers around a radio, listening to the new sounds of the 1960s. One of their favorite stations was WDIA out of Memphis. “On cool winter nights,” Taylor said, “you could get a strong signal.” The station played rhythm and blues. What took the kids away, though, were the rock-and-roll bands of the British Invasion.  Gene grew his hair down to his eyes, like The Beatles, as long as his Rosedale football coaches would allow. He’d been teaching himself to play guitar since junior high. Before long he could drop a needle on a record he had never heard and within a try or two mimic the song’s guitar part without flaw. “He lived, ate, breathed guitar,” Dasel Moorhead, another childhood friend, said. He joined The Ninth Time at fourteen. He was the youngest member. The group performed popular tunes—some Sam and Dave, some Wilson Pickett—and for Gene, on lead guitar, they came easy. He would whisper to the rhythm guitarist how to finger a certain chord, even though the rhythm guitarist was three years older than him.  The Ninth Time evolved into Fyre, which included a keyboard player from the Delta named Jim “Fish” Michie. Michie, who lives in Nashville today and has shared a stage with Widespread Panic, said the first time he played with Gene the young guitarist did not utter a single word. “I didn’t know if he was painfully shy or just didn’t talk,” Michie said. While Gene was just as reserved on stage, where he stood as motionless as a statue, his playing made him stand out. He was too young to have developed a style but nothing was too fast for him. Fyre played a bunch of Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and high school parties, where the crowds came looking to enjoy themselves and dance. When the shows began, though, said Jimmy King, the group’s vocalist, half of the people would stop dancing. “They would be up front,” he said, “in front of Gene, with their mouths open, watching him play.” If you ask about him today, people use words like “genius” and “savant” with conviction. One man who heard him play described the clarity of notes Gene brought out of guitar strings in a way that felt like grace. *  Some people at the Ruleville show remember that, without Gaia, Furthermore packed up and left without performing. Others believe a friend of the band picked up a guitar and helped the group through an abbreviated set of rock songs. Whatever happened, they were all worried.  David Moore, the group’s drummer, and his brother Wally, who played the saxophone and flute, stopped at their mother’s place, in Cleveland, for a snack on the way home. Not long ago, when asked what time they left their mother’s home, Wally said, “We didn’t pay much attention to time then.” The brothers were twenty-four and twenty, and it was likely after midnight when they left Cleveland heading west on Highway 8. Their thoughts kept circling back to Gaia. They went to Mary’s family’s home in Malvina and knocked on the door. There was no answer. After driving by Gaia’s mother’s home in Rosedale and seeing that his car was not there, they were headed home, but decided to go to Gaia’s home in the fields instead. David drove. Wally remembers sitting in the passenger seat, passing time by fiddling with a spotlight, shining the light down into ditches and up through tree branches. At about 2:45 a.m., when far off Delta places reach a rare sort of vacancy and stillness, the brothers came around the edge of Bogue Phalia. They saw lights in the distance, coming out of the open front door of Gene and Mary’s home. Getting closer, they saw his car, a green Ford Maverick, parked at the house. David stopped the car at the top of the drive.  Furthermore had practiced at the house many times. The brothers knew the property. The place was grown up and faded, the house rickety and old. Sitting in the car, David felt something out of place in a dark spot in the yard. He asked his brother, beside him, to shine the spotlight over. When describing what happened next, Wally said, “This is the part of my life where the terror has never been higher.” *  When Gene graduated from Rosedale High School in 1971, many of the friends he played music with put their instruments down and went to work or college or joined the military. Gene went deeper into music. He was drawn to edgier guitar work, to musicians like Clapton, Hendrix and John McLaughlin, guitarists who did more than play three-chord love songs and smile. He joined a group called Bodock, and enrolled at Delta State University in Cleveland. He did not care about taking a degree. He wanted to learn about music. Jim “Fish” Michie was a Delta State student then. Sometimes, outside of Broom Hall, he bumped into Gene, coming or going to music classes in Zeigel Hall. They would chit-chat. “I could hang in there with him on that stuff up to a point,” Michie said with a laugh. When Gene turned the conversation toward abstract music theories, Michie, a social sciences major, would get lost. Gene still lived with his mother, in Rosedale, in a place beside his grandmother Emma Dawkins. In a sort of garage space between the homes he built a makeshift recording studio, where he practiced and recorded pieces of music he wrote. (A neighbour remembers that Dawkins, in her seventies, asked that he keep it down during General Hospital.) Mike Morrison, the owner of a music equipment store in Cleveland, recalls Gene hearing a Mahavishnu Orchestra record at the shop and explaining what he believed the musicians were meaning to impart with each note. In order to play classical guitar he grew out the fingernails on his right hand. One of the friends Gene felt comfortable sharing his passion for music with was David Moore, who, since graduating from Rosedale High in 1969, had become a respected drummer in Delta music circles. The son of a Rosedale doctor, David, like Gene, existed at the fringes of the area’s conservative social webbing. He worked at a cotton gin but art and music were his passions. Eight miles north of Rosedale, up Highway 1, in Gunnison, he rented an old home with a wrap-around porch where he and Gene spent a lot of time playing music, smoking a little dope and deepening their friendship. In 1974, to make some money, David and Gene played some shows at the Conservation League, a working class club and restaurant on Lake Beulah, an oxbow lake of the Mississippi River. One night at the Conservation League, Gene met a sixteen-year-old girl named Mary Braxton. He was smitten with Mary, dark-haired and outgoing, and a relationship began. The Braxtons lived in Malvina. They were a large, blue-collar family—Mary had four sisters and five brothers. Once Gene and Mary met, “they were always together,” Wally Moore said. They complemented one another. Mary had a sensitive young man with focused sincerity in a place where sensitivity and sincerity were not especially valued, and Gene had an attractive local girl who accepted his humble life and music. There is little doubt they were in love. They married on April 21, 1975.  Shortly after the wedding they began renting the little isolated house outside of Malvina. Besides being a new couple after independence, Gene wanted a place of his own, where he could practice his music without bothering anyone. It was hot, with no telephone, and they let the grass grow knee-high, natural. But the place was cheap and anyone who has shared a home with their first lover knows the bliss those walls held.  The couple lived simply, with Gene focused on music and his classes at Delta State University in Cleveland, and Mary, who had recently quit high school, devoted to him. The majority of their first summer as a married couple was spent at the Rosedale Country Club swimming pool, where a lifeguard would jokingly tell them to stop kissing. Mary seemed to spend that entire summer in a swimming suit. *  Sitting in the car, Wally moved the spotlight into the yard of the Gaias’ house. The light revealed Gene Gaia laying completely naked, dead. Beneath him lay Mary, on her back, “staring straight up into the sky,” Wally said, “like making a snow angel.” She was wearing bikini bottoms and Gene was on top of her, his knees and hands beneath him. Friends would later describe Gene as dying “crouched over Mary, like he was trying to pick her up.” His face was down, hidden. Panic rushed in around Wally. David began turning the car around. He had an Opel Kadett then, with a bad carburetor, and as the car struggled to gain speed on the mud and gravel he thought he glimpsed the figure of a man with long hair ducking into the house.  In Malvina, a nearby community, they stopped at the home of Sybil Tyer, who David sometimes hunted Native American artifacts with. When she answered the door, the brothers told her to call the police, and asked for a gun. They wanted to return to the Gaia home and find who David had seen. Tyer called the Bolivar County Sheriff’s Department and the brothers instead drove to Rosedale, where a carload of deputies met them beneath a red light in front of the courthouse. Then they drove back out into the fields toward the Gaia home. David described what they found when they got there as a “lit-up ghost scene.”  Whoever David thought he had seen in the doorway, if he had seen anyone, was gone. Wally recalls that what met the deputies as they crept across the Gaias’ yard, guns drawn, was the foul smell of death, hanging thick in the air, and a kitten, wandering around, hissing. The bodies were nearby. Gene had been shot in the back, in the right temple and in the mouth. A doctor who performed the autopsy would later say of the bullet holes in Gene’s mouth that “we could identify two, but the destruction was so much there could have been more.” Mary had been shot in the buttocks and multiple times in the throat, beneath her chin. They both died from bullets entering their skulls. A prosecutor later said they were “brutally executed, not murdered.”  Gene’s car was parked in front of the home. The windows were down and bed linens and musical equipment were on the seats. It seemed like the couple had been getting ready to leave. Or had just arrived home. The deputies asked the Moore brothers to accompany them inside the house, where it was clear a struggle had taken place. There was an overturned lamp on a table and the hinges of an interior door had been knocked out of a wall. There were drops of blood in several places and a broken ashtray. When the deputies heard a noise in the back, they pulled a curtain aside cautiously to find a dog, growling at them. There were pieces of dog feces in several spots on the floor and, beside the bed, a fully-loaded .22-caliber rifle. In the front room was a pair of shorts and the bikini top that matched the bottoms Mary was wearing. David had the impression Gene and Mary had been forced to disrobe at gunpoint. In the kitchen, on the stove, two or three eggs had been left boiling in a pot of water. “It had been burning so long,” a deputy later testified, “that the handle had burned off the boiler.” The water was long gone. “The egg shells were just ash,” Wally said. Other signs of an interrupted meal were on a nearby table: Plates covered in mildew and mold, jar of pickles, bread, mayonnaise and tuna fish. Deputies collected their evidence and photographed the scene, and an ambulance took the bodies to the Bolivar County Hospital morgue in Cleveland before sunrise. Some of Mary’s brothers, who lived down the road in Malvina, gathered at the end of the driveway. The Moore brothers eventually drove home in disbelief. A deputy told them before they left that in the coming days, as the investigation began, they should not leave the area. They went home to Gunnison where, around midday or so, David’s girlfriend brought them some food. They ate what they could. * The band that became Furthermore formed a month or so after Gene married. Gene played the guitar, David the drums. They asked Larry Prestage, from Cleveland, to be the vocalist. Prestage called Chuck Kimes to play bass. Kimes, 19 at the time, jumped at the chance to play with Gene, who, he said, “was a heavyweight in the Delta,” as far as musicians go. The guys recruited Wally Moore, David’s younger brother, to play flute and saxophone, which sounded, David said, “like a pterodactyl.” At first, they called themselves Dog Brains (though now, there’s some dispute over whether it was in fact Dog Brain or Dog Branz). Kimes remembers that there was creative tension, the good kind. While Gene indulged his strange interests and Prestage wanted more straight-forward rock, David gave speeches on the band not prostituting itself and needing to practice more. Gene sometimes called his old friend “Hitler” behind his back for the driving intensity of his personality. For weeks, they practiced at Gene’s new place. With only crops around for miles they could turn the amps up with no worries.  [[{"fid":"6704546","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"5":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"5"}}]] Gene, under the influence of musicians like Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, wrote out long compositions, welding wildly different pieces of music together in ways that kept them afloat. If an audience found something to dance to, David said, then good. But that was not the goal. The idea was to play music that inspired them, but Gene knew they also had to play popular music to make money. Eventually they changed the name to Furthermore, a more approachable moniker. There was no lack of gigs. Photos of the band from the time, set against a campfire, show an innocent awkwardness in four of their faces, the kind that comes from going at something you have not learned how to reach. Then there is Gene, thin with long hair and slouching with indifference. He rarely looks directly at the camera and seems attuned to something far away, something only he can see. * From the beginning, investigators with the Bolivar County Sheriff’s Department had trouble uncovering a motive for the Gaia murders.  No gun was found near the bodies, so presumably murder-suicide was out. Nothing appeared to be missing from the house, so robbery was out, too. Because a plastic bag containing about a pound of marijuana was found in a closet, investigators thought the murders might have been the result of a botched drug deal. Authorities summoned Kimes for an interview. After showing the bassist gruesome photographs of the bodies, they implied that drugs must have been involved. Kimes heard from Prestage that Gene grew a little marijuana near the house but only for personal use. Also, if it was a drug deal, why were the Gaias nude? And why was the marijuana left behind?  Establishing when the murders occurred was just as challenging as identifying a motive. The bodies were taken from the scene at 5:30 on Saturday morning, and put in refrigeration at the morgue about twenty-five minutes away, approximately three hours after being found. The bodies were badly deteriorated and bloated. One newspaper reported that investigators guessed they had laid outside since at least Thursday. It’s likely the rain that week accelerated the decomposition process, distorting the timeframe. They hoped autopsies would clear up a time of death.  Meanwhile, word of the murders made it through the community. By Saturday night something chilling was circulating: Whoever committed the Gaia murders was still at large. There were conflicting stories about the last time the Gaias had been seen alive. Friends of the couple told the Delta Democrat-Times, a local newspaper, that Gene and Mary had last been seen late Thursday afternoon. The newspaper also reported that the couple’s parents had last seen them Tuesday, something contradicted by Jean Gaia at the eventual trial for the murders, where she would say she’d seen them Wednesday. The autopsies were performed two days after the bodies were discovered. Instead of clearing up the confusion around the time of death, the findings brought out more contradiction. The pathologist believed the murders occurred 48 to 72 hours prior to the bodies being placed in the morgue. That meant Gene and Mary were shot sometime between Wednesday morning and Thursday morning. Either the pathologist was wrong or the people claiming to have seen the couple Thursday afternoon had actually seen someone else. Or they were lying.  A local newspaper reporter named Pam Bullard did not know Gene and Mary but several days after their bodies were found she wrote a piece for The Bolivar Commercial about seeing them at the pool. “Mary would drift to a group of swimmers younger than herself to practice diving, race or play water games,” Bullard wrote. “Gene, almost motionless, would rest against the side of the pool, either watching her or appearing to meditate on something far removed from his surroundings… Then they would leave, arm in arm, taking with them all those things new love is suppose [sic] to be. “In those moments,” the piece ended, “it always seemed that the real world was far removed from their existence.” One person  interviewed for this story said Mary died pregnant. *  Furthermore played high school dances and Delta bars that summer. In August, the band played a fraternity party at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The Sunday before he died, Gene’s mother gave him a watch for his upcoming twenty-second birthday. On Monday, Mary and Gene had a check cashed at a Rosedale service station. They went to Gunnison on Tuesday so Gene could discuss Furthermore’s music with the Moore brothers. They spent Tuesday night at Jean Gaia’s home, where they often stayed as the summer wore on, because when August comes to the Mississippi Delta and blackbirds flock to the fields to eat rice, farmers respond by carrying rifles and shotguns into the fields, shooting relentlessly to scare them away. Sometimes they have airplanes fly back and forth to make them scatter. The rising southern heat and amount of bugs made staying at the little old house in the fields hard. On Wednesday morning—September 3, 1975—before she left for work, Jean Gaia looked in on her son and daughter-in-law. They were both still sleeping. They eventually went to the swimming pool and stayed until late afternoon, when they left in their swimming suits. They went back to Jean Gaia’s home around 4:30 p.m., where they picked up the cake Mary had made for his birthday, which they were going to share with Mary’s siblings.  Then, on Friday, Gene never showed up for Furthermore’s gig in Ruleville.  * Investigators focused on the evidence collected at the Gaia murder scene. A deputy found three empty bullet cartridges on the floor of the home’s front room. The sheriff, combing through the high grass outside, found, a couple of feet from the bodies, five empty cartridges and, a third of a mile from the house, beside a gravel road, several empty cartridges. The cartridges found near the bodies were Federal brand .22-caliber, long rifle hollow point bullets, and the sheriff and his investigators gathered at the Rosedale courthouse on Sunday to inspect them all with a magnifying glass. Deputy Sheriff James Harper said the markings on the cartridges appeared to match. According to the Delta Democrat-Times, one of the few local buyers of Federal brand bullets was Robbins & Long, a local farming company based in Rosedale that also owned the house Gene and Mary had been renting. The company gave the bullets, as well as rifles, to its workers to deal with blackbirds. C.D. Long, one of the owners, handed police the key to a work truck used by Joe Travis, an employee who worked the fields around the Gaia home. The sheriff knew Travis, a thirty-year-old Rosedale native, not because he was a criminal, but because the sheriff knew just about every longtime Bolivar County family. Travis and his wife lived in Cleveland, twenty miles east of Rosedale. He had been with Robbins & Long about three years. On Monday, investigators found his work truck, a green and white ’73 Ford Ranger, parked outside of his South Third Avenue home in Cleveland. In the cab they found boxes of Federal-brand bullets and two .22-caliber rifles—one on the seat in plain view and one behind the seat. The one on the seat belonged to Travis’s father. The one behind the seat, a Remington Nylon 66, belonged to Robbins & Long and was wrapped in a blue jean jacket. Investigators took both. They sent the guns, along with the spent cartridges found at the Gaia home, to the Mississippi Crime Lab, where analysts would work to determine if the cartridges had been fired from either of the guns. Investigators also spoke with Travis. Newspapers reported that he maintained his innocence. He said he worked into the evening on the previous Wednesday, and arrived home around 7:15 p.m. On Thursday, he said, he ate dinner at his father’s home and on Friday went square dancing in Grenada.  A Robbins & Long employee would testify that he and another man had worked with Travis on Wednesday. Sometime in the afternoon, Travis left them in the fields while he went into town. He returned before they left work with some whiskey, offered them a drink, then drove them home between 5 and 5:30 p.m. The employee said that as Travis dropped them off, he mentioned that he was going to go shut off the water pumps in the rice field near Malvina. Authorities arrested Travis and charged him with the murders of Gene and Mary Gaia. He was held without bond. When the next Bolivar County grand jury met, in October, it would hear the evidence against Travis. * Gene and Mary were buried side by side in Beulah, south of Rosedale, after Joe Travis’s arrest. A crowd attended the funeral, including Mary’s family, Gene’s musician friends and the Bolivar County sheriff. As people gathered around the grave, one of Mary’s relatives pointed at Larry Prestage, the Furthermore vocalist, and accused him of knowing more about the murders than he was letting on. Morrison, who supplied Furthermore with PA equipment from his music store, described the graveside scene as “spooky.” The accusation might have been connected to unfounded rumors about an affair between Prestage and Mary. Yet something deeper was at play, too. Something simmering just beneath the area’s social surface. A distrust between the old working class and new hippie scene had emerged in the Delta, like in most places. “You had to stay away from them to avoid getting into anything,” Jimmy King, a vocalist in one of Gene’s early bands, said. After the Gaia murders, the distrust became more pointed.  There was a feeling among Gene’s friends that he had been targeted because of his lifestyle. He was an outsider and sight to see in the conservative Delta. His hair touched his shoulders and he was spotted at Morrison’s music store in Cleveland wearing cowboy boots, gym shorts and no shirt. There was talk that whoever killed him and Mary had done so for something like sport. “It seemed like a hate-killing because so many shots were fired,” Jimmy King said. “I immediately thought a redneck did it, that a redneck got drunk and decided he was going to kill a hippie.” Kimes, the bassist in Furthermore, felt jealousy may have been a motivating factor. Maybe someone from the Conservation League, he said, had not liked a hippie like Gene getting into a relationship with Mary. Kimes wondered if someone decided to teach a lesson. Joe Travis was a family man who attended a local Baptist church. His supporters felt he could not have been involved with what happened at the Gaia home and in October, the grand jury agreed—it declined to indict Travis for the murders. The evidence against him—the rifles in his work truck, the brand of bullets, the fact that he worked the fields near Malvina—was circumstantial. Also, there were no witnesses. Travis was free to go—for the time being. A different grand jury would indict him one year later and he would stand trial. But no one knew that then, and with no suspect in custody, fear spread, especially among friends of Gene and Mary. They saw the workings of a conspiracy.  Morrison said he went to bed with a double-barrel shotgun after the deaths. “We didn’t know who had killed Gene,” he said. Or why. *  Through fall, winter and spring people speculated about what happened at the Gaia home. The theories were fueled by the crime scene’s details, which seemed to grow more lurid in memory as time went by.  There was talk that when authorities arrived at the scene that night they discovered a dead puppy in Gene’s car. A newspaper reported that the puppy was named “Sally” and that Mary took it with her everywhere. The rumor was that the dog, trapped in the car, had died of heat exhaustion, or perhaps starvation. In fact, when investigators arrived at the scene, the windows of Gene’s Maverick were down. Some people said the cake Mary baked for Gene’s birthday was found in the car, too, with melted icing.  One of the theories that went around involved the deaths of two young men twelve years earlier, during the summer of 1963. The men were hunting at Lake Bols near Malvina. They were shot and no arrest was ever made. The case bewildered some locals—it does to this day—and after the Gaia murders some wondered if something sinister moved in the woods near Malvina. L.B. Williams, the sheriff of Bolivar County, dismissed any connection. No arrest had been made in the Lake Bols deaths, he said, because investigators deemed it a murder-suicide. Another theory involved Gene Gaia’s sexuality playing a role in what happened. In a letter David Moore wrote around Halloween 1975, he mentions being under the impression that the autopsy suggested Gene, around the time of death, had been penetrated anally. In the same letter, David mentions that the sheriff told him an expert claimed there was no reason to think that happened. Either way, investigators were asking people if Gene was homosexual. He did not appear to be, but the questions led to whispers, which revolved around Gene’s relationship with a Rosedale man with long hair named Harmon Braxton. An uncle of Mary’s, Braxton, according to local gossips, was gay. When Gene was younger, Braxton had been something of a father figure to him. After the murders, an investigator with the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol asked Jean Gaia about her son’s relationship with Braxton. She said that when Gene was 13 or 14 he was friends with Braxton, who would have been in his early thirties. She thought that Braxton was “queer,” she said, and told her son to quit spending time with him, and he did. (At trial, Jean Gaia denied telling this story.) David Moore said Gene never talked about his relationship with Braxton, but some people wondered if Braxton committed the Gaia murders out of frustrated jealousies. He died in 2006, at the age of seventy-one, on the banks of the Mississippi River. He does not appear to have ever been a formal suspect.  There was also talk about investigators needing to take a closer look at the Moore brothers. This theory began early—someone called their mother, in Cleveland, the morning the bodies were found, falsely claiming that they’d been arrested as suspects. The brothers chose not to attend their friend’s funeral.  David said recently he avoided the services because he was hearing rumors—about his possible involvement, about drugs being involved—and he felt it best to stay away. Investigators asked Wally Moore to take a lie detector test. He agreed, but when David, who Wally says is the more emotional of the two, learned of the request, he talked him out of it, saying it was ridiculous and insulting. There was also the matter of a strange drawing Wally made several months before the murders. Around the time Gene started dating Mary, he moved in with the Moore brothers in Gunnison. One night Wally was in his bedroom, trying to read. Mary was over, and loud music was coming out of Gene’s room. Wally, nineteen or twenty, grew agitated. He drew a picture, a sort of cartoon portrait of a face in distress, with a screw passing through its skull and a pan of eggs on top of its head—this was meant to show Wally’s frustration. Behind the head were two stick figures having sex, surrounded by stray words of a sexual nature: “Slurp.” “Hummmmm x 1032 minutes.” “Fukk.” “Suk my nose.” There were also several measures of music written out and, in a corner, an upside down cat. Wally slid the drawing under Gene’s door and forgot about the whole episode. “I never in a million years,” he said recently, “believed that I would still be talking about it forty-three years later.” For some reason, Mary kept the drawing—investigators discovered it in her purse after the murders—and when Joe Travis stood trial, his defense attorney used it to suggest to jurors that Wally might have been involved with Mary and, by extension, in the double homicide.  * In late 1975, after the first grand jury declined to indict Joe Travis, a newspaper reporter asked L.B. Williams, the sheriff, what his office planned to do about the unsolved Gaia case. “We will be looking at everything that moves. Going over everything again,” he said. “As long as we tote this badge we will never quit looking. Somebody did it and it’s our job to find out who.”  In October 1976, a second grand jury convened in the Rosedale courthouse. This time, the jury indicted Travis, twice—once for the murder of Gene Gaia, once for the murder of Mary Gaia. M. Lee Graves, the young district attorney, chose to try Travis on Gene’s murder first. For his defense, Travis hired Charles L. Sullivan, a 52-year-old white-haired Clarksdale attorney and powerful member of the Delta’s complex, unseen power structure. Sullivan had been Mississippi’s lieutenant governor five years earlier. There was talk that Travis’s friends and family pooled resources to pay Sullivan’s fees. The trial took place in April 1977. The jury was sequestered at the Holiday Inn in nearby Cleveland. Spectators piled into the Rosedale courthouse as testimony began. Wally Moore was the first to take the witness stand. Graves had to ask him to speak up several times so the jury could hear him. While the prosecution used Wally more or less to establish the discovery of the bodies, the defense had other purposes. From the moment Sullivan began his cross-examination it was clear he intended to suggest that the Moore brothers should be suspects. “Mr. Moore,” Sullivan began, “did any of the group indulge in the use of drugs or narcotics to any extent?” Wally said they drank occasionally and smoked cigarettes. After Sullivan asked Wally if he had been sleeping with Mary and Wally said he had not, Sullivan handed Wally a copy of the drawing found in Mary’s purse. “Can you tell me what this is?” he said. “Yes, I can,” Wally replied. “I drew it.” Sullivan wanted jurors to see how closely the drawing’s details—the sexual nature of the bodies, the eggs, the cat—mirrored the crime scene. He also felt like jurors might take the drawing as evidence that Wally and Mary were romantically involved. Throughout the trial, the defense suggested alternative theories and intriguing what-ifs, and pointed out that the drops of blood found in the Gaia did not match Travis’s blood type. Neither did pubic hairs taken from the home. [[{"fid":"6704551","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"6":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"6"}}]] The prosecution, meanwhile, leaned on the findings of a criminalist from the state crime lab, who testified that the .22-caliber rifle taken from Travis’s work truck fired the cartridges found in and outside of the Gaia home. However, the criminalist could not say with certainty that the bullet fragments removed from the bodies were fired from the gun—something Travis’s team repeatedly pointed out. After the doctor who performed the autopsies testified that Gene and Mary died 48-72 hours prior to the bodies arriving at the morgue, the defense produced two witnesses who claimed to have seen the couple Thursday evening. One defense witness testified to having seen Travis and his wife square dancing in Linn on Thursday night and in Grenada on Friday night. Another witness said she didn’t think Travis’s wife was with him in Linn.  During closing arguments, Frank Wynne, a prosecutor, held the Remington rifle above his head. “This witness will not lie,” he said of the gun. “It’ll tell you the truth every time.” Sullivan responded by reinforcing the idea that authorities had arrested the wrong man. “Some sick person committed the murders of these people,” he said. “Joe Travis is not that kind of person.” Jurors got the case at 4:25 p.m. on Friday. They reached a decision two hours later. After the clerk read the verdict—“Not guilty”—a shriek came from one side of the courtroom, and some people began crying. Travis showed no emotion and left with his arm around his wife, who was pregnant. Jean Gaia left the courthouse. She died seven years later, at the age of sixty-two, and was buried in Beulah, not far from Gene and Mary. Phillip Taylor, one of Gene’s childhood friends, remembers speaking with her a year or so after the murders. “She had pretty much…” he said, his voice trailing off. “It was her only child.” * There was a Rosedale police officer named Grady Jenkins hanging around downtown at the time of the trial. When not playing dominoes at the courthouse, he was looking for conversation. He had the gift of gab and wide-ranging friendships and his son, Milton Jenkins, said he had a way of “absorbing information.” Before Grady Jenkins died in 1981, he told someone that he knew what transpired in the jury room during the Joe Travis trial in 1977.  According to someone who heard the story, Jenkins claimed that when deliberations began, only one of the jurors was in favor of acquittal. This person attended church with Joe Travis and said even if Travis admitted to the murders she wouldn’t believe he did it. Hearing this, another juror decided to acquit, and the jury sat deadlocked, ten to two. The foreman decided that no matter the outcome, prosecutors still had to try Travis on Mary’s murder indictment. Because of that second indictment, Jenkins said, the jury agreed to a not-guilty verdict. What the jury could not have known is that following the acquittal, Sullivan asked the judge to dismiss the indictment against Travis for Mary Gaia’s murder. Sullivan said since the two murders occurred at the same time, and the evidence in both cases was identical, to prosecute Travis for Mary’s murder amounted to double jeopardy. The judge agreed and dismissed the indictment.  After hearing Jenkins’s story, I tried to find out if it was true. One jury member I could identify, James Aycox, died in 2012. I never found out the identity of the juror who came around. The one who allegedly held out for an acquittal, though, I found living in the Arkansas Ozarks.  Her name is Anne Brister. She is in her eighties now. When I reached her on the telephone and explained the reason for my call, she politely asked that I discuss the matter with her husband, and handed him the phone.  John Brister, in a kind but firm voice, asked if I had attended the trial. I told him I had not. He said he sat through nearly all of it. He said he had known Joe Travis since he was a baby and he could not have been involved. “In this country,” he said, “you’re innocent until proven guilty. And they never had any proof.” When I told him Grady Jenkins’s story—that ten jurors had wanted a conviction while his wife wanted an acquittal—he responded, “Well, that pretty much was the case.”  The person likely involved in the murders, he said, drew crazy pictures and left the country after the trial. I asked Brister if he was referring to Wally Moore, who moved to Japan in the 1980s. Brister said he was not calling any names. I asked if his family had attended the same church as Travis. He said they had. Later, he said, “Poor old Joe.” *  A sort of black hole has spread around the corners of the Gaia murders in Bolivar County. While part of this is the passage of time, part of it is harder to explain. Like the sheriff’s department claiming not to have any files whatsoever relating to the investigation, which lasted nearly two years and involved six or seven local investigators, as well as state and federal officials. Some people say L.B. Williams took investigative files home with him after his retirement. Maybe the Gaia files were among them. Or perhaps they were lost when a tornado came through Bolivar County more than a decade ago, destroying several buildings, including a correctional facility that housed old files. Most everyone involved in the investigation and trial has died. The judge in 1978. Charles L. Sullivan the following year in a plane crash. The sheriff in 1993. The lead investigator in 2005. The pathologist who performed the autopsies died in 2016. The only person left is M. Lee Graves, the district attorney who prosecuted Joe Travis. A retired Delta attorney said, “He likely has a very sore spot about the outcome of that trial.” There are people who feel Graves, at best, was apathetic about the murder of a poor, hippie musician. But when the first grand jury declined to indict Joe Travis, Graves could have walked away. Instead, one year later, he presented evidence to a different grand jury and got indictments. Then, after that jury found Travis not guilty of Gene’s murder and the judge tossed the indictment for Mary’s murder, Graves appealed to the state Supreme Court. Joe Travis’s team filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, which a judge approved, because so much time had passed. That same day, Graves filed a motion to withdraw the appeal himself, because he’d missed a deadline for filing additional paperwork.  One day I called Rickey Davis, the former Robbins & Long employee who worked that Wednesday with Joe Travis. “I couldn’t tell you whether he did it or not,” Davis said. “I just worked with him.” He said he passed by Gene and Mary’s home in those fields multiple times that week and never noticed anything. He says now that he always thought no one lived there, because the grass grew so high. Robert Johnston, one of the attorneys who worked on Travis’s defense team, is also still practicing law in the Delta. He declined to comment, saying he would need Travis’s permission to do so. “I do not know where he might be,” he said, “and or even if he is still alive.” I am told Travis might, in fact, still be alive.  He would be in his seventies now. I never did find a phone number that worked for him. Some people said he was in the Delta. Others said he was in south Mississippi. I found addresses for him in both locations, sent letters and never heard back. *  Each surviving member of Furthermore was open to talking at length about their memories of Gaia and what happened, except for Prestage, who, I was told, was busy helping a family member through a hard time. That said, the band was a May-to-September affair and, like any affair, it haunts the memories of those involved to different degrees. Larry Prestage lives in south Florida, and Chuck Kimes lives in St. Marys, Georgia. Both of them are still involved in music. Wally Moore, after two decades in Japan, lives in Oregon. Sometimes he carries a flute into his garage and plays for his own satisfaction. “I have no dreams,” he said, “about playing in public again.” The only band member still living in the Delta is David Moore, a widower. The tallest magnolia tree in Rosedale used to grow nearby, but it’s been cut down. He still performs music on peculiar, percussion-like instruments he makes himself and keeps in his music room a Marshall amp that once belonged to Gene Gaia. Once, when I visited David in Rosedale, we went into the fields outside of Malvina. We drove along a wet gravel road until David felt we were close to where Mary and Gene lived—the house burned years ago and all traces of it have vanished—and then we parked and got out. David mentioned he had not come to the area much.  I wondered if we might conjure up some ghosts out there, but on that cool and overcast January day, with the fields around us bare, everything seemed calm, vacant and still. It was all gone. The only sound other than our voices was a gusty wind and as we walked away, getting ready to leave, it seemed to grow stronger.
Making Peace with New Age

After years of being one of those people who used the term as a derogatory catch-all, I realized that music that falls under the label can, and often does, help me in unexpected ways.

It’s about a five-minute walk downhill from the Bolton Valley Resort to the Lotus Mountain Retreat. My wife and I found a place on the mountain outside of Burlington during the off-season, so the little ski town feels dead, maybe a little post-apocalyptic. I hardly see any other humans walking around, and the only sounds I hear are running water and some rustling of leaves in the distance. I’m far from the city and a little afraid of all the serenity. A crow stares down at me and squawks. When I make it to my final destination, where I’m booked to get a massage, I feel like I’ve arrived at a safe space, that nothing can hurt me now that I’m standing in the shadow of the yoga retreat’s geodesic dome. Inside, my masseuse explains the technique she’ll be using. She looks about twenty-five, smells of patchouli, and is wearing the type of lacey dress you’d expect from somebody who gives massages in a yoga and meditation retreat in Vermont. She leads me to a small room where I take off everything save for my underwear—I’ve never quite figured out if I’m supposed to take off my underwear during massages, and probably wouldn’t even if I was. She tells me to relax and mentions something about my chakras before turning on some music that I can only describe as somebody with a synthesizer recreating whale sounds and then laying those overtop a gentle repetitive beat—a tiny pumping human heart amplified to sync up with ten-thousand-pound mating calls from the depths of the sea. I get massages fairly often these days; it’s something I’ve made room for in my budget because it helps me deal with my anxiety, a suggestion from my shrink. I’ve taken a number of steps in the past few years to decrease how incredibly anxious I always feel, and the one thing I’ve come away with—from my bi-weekly sessions in various, high-end spas that I get a discount on through Groupon, to places that I’m pretty sure are filming me and uploading the videos to the dark web—is that they all play really bad music. The type of music that, if hard pressed, I’d reluctantly describe as “new age”—nature sounds looped and given a slow backing track; drawn out pulsing synths; white people layering chants from a native people to which they have no connection or religion they don’t practice to achieve some sort of deep, spiritual feeling in the listener; nonsensical lyrics with some mystical framing or, even worse, some self-help babble set to music. The problem with that description, though, is that I’m perpetuating a trend that has gone on far too long. While there are genres of music that get treated unfairly (classical music as the soundtrack either for snobs or deterring “anti-social behavior,” the infamous “anything but rap and country” proclamation), none have been as misunderstood and despised as what we think of as “new age.” * “What is ‘new age’ music?” asked John Schaefer in the December 1985 issue of Spin. “Is it music that’s made for meditation, stress reduction, or massage? Or is it whatever California’s post-hippie generation or the yuppie crowd happens to be listening to at this moment?” More than thirty years later, we’re scarcely closer to an accurate working definition. In a 2016 A.V. Club article, Eli Zeger wrote that, “Initially, the term ‘new age’ characterized soloists who devoted their instrumentations to the grace of Mother Nature, whose track lists and discographies swam with references to solstices, rainfall, and other outdoorsy phenomena.” The latter was closer to my early experiences with new age—at least in terms of how I was exposed to it. As a child of the late 1980s and ’90s, the very mention of the term conjured up sitting with an “alternative healer” named Marcus my parents sent me to when traditional psychotherapy didn’t fix my A.D.H.D., anxiety, and bouts of depression. The first time we met, Marcus and I sat staring at each other. He was in a robe, had a beard, a donut cut atop his head that tied back into a ponytail, and wore two necklaces, one a Hebrew chai and the other a beaded, vaguely Native American-looking piece. That inaugural staring session with Marcus did not yield a second one, but he did suggest to my mother that if we ever see the commercial for the Pure Moods CD, that we dial the 800 number and order it. He said it was very relaxing. The Pure Moods album is mystifying—a collection of largely instrumental tracks with not much of anything in common otherwise. It is also the likely source of both our current understanding and misunderstanding of what new age music is and is not. Released in 1994, the commercial snuck onto MTV between images of Blind Melon’s Bee Girl and Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage”: a woman dancing with a unicorn to the sound of a chant by native Amis people of Taiwan layered over an unmistakable sample of John Bonham’s drumming from the Led Zeppelin song “When the Levee Breaks.” The song, “Return to Innocence,” by the Romanian-German producer Michael Cretu’s project known as Enigma, gives way to a narrator prompting you to “imagine a world where time drifts slowly.” Two songs after things kick off with Enigma, you’re listening to Jan Hammer’s “Crockett’s Theme” from Miami Vice. Later, you’ll transition from Enya to “Tubular Bells Part 1”—because nothing says relax and chill like the theme from The Exorcist—before eventually moving onto Angelo Badalamenti’s theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, tracks from Ennio Morricone, The Orb, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Kenny G, and, most importantly, Brian Eno, whose early ambient works are often cited as the beginning of new age music, although Eno himself has worked to distance himself from the label on more than a few occasions. [[{"fid":"6704556","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Eno’s not alone there. Jon Pareles, in a November 1987 New York Times article, wrote that new age is mostly “timid and constricted,” and that it “promises an exotic sanctuary, but it's a sanctuary furnished like a playpen.” A few months earlier, Pareles would write about Eno’s contemporary, the composer Harold Budd, and his war with anybody who would associate his own “consonant, slow-moving and atmospheric” music with new age. Budd told Pareles, “I reach for my revolver” whenever he heard the term, and that “I’m fighting tooth and nail against people throwing me into that bag.” Dedicated fandoms with often-practical appreciations of the music notwithstanding, though, the disrespect continues. In a 2015 BuzzFeed profile of the artist Enya, Anne Helen Petersen pointed out that the Grammy Award winner, who routinely adds to her more than 80 million records sold, “has been derogatorily described as Muzak or New Age.” In his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan goes on guided psychedelic experiences, usually noting the music is “New Age drivel.” Eli Zeger, in his above-mentioned 2016 article, wrote, referencing Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” “There’s nothing wrong with seeking peace and calm—it’s a beautiful thing, in fact. What’s irritating is how new age has preached the same message—‘sail away, sail away, sail away’—that many of its artists have become seemingly desensitized to its significance.” None of that stopped the music’s early ’90s “mainstream” push. Pure Moods is the culmination of the idea the article mentions about how participants in that year’s International New Age Music Conference believed that the “catchall” title could gain more fans “via the ethnic sounds and rhythms of world music.” Pure Moods was also the illogical conclusion of that idea: future releases in the series would include everything from the X-Files theme to “Albatross” by a pre-Stevie Nicks Fleetwood Mac and Giorgio Moroder’s theme from Midnight Express. A way to market “the perfect soundtrack for your way of life,” as the voice in the commercial put it, the mish mosh compilation was continuing a trend that had been building throughout the 1970s and 1980s: music as therapy for the masses. Few were as successful at this as Steven Halpern, who, as a 1995 Billboard article explains, focused on selling the records on his Inner Peace record label to health food stores and at yoga conferences. According to Halpern, his targeted sales have helped push millions of his albums into the hands of consumers. “My message is that we can harmonize our body, mind and spirit more,” Halpern has said. “By minimizing effectively, by using healing music and by bringing healing sounds into our life; by minimizing some of the distracting and noisy and disease-forming sounds and bringing more life-affirming sounds into our world, into our work and into our life.” “I think the oddest tape will always be Steven Halpern's Music For Meetings: The Sounds Of Success, which seems to not have been actually commercially released to the public, but nevertheless exists,” says Douglas Mcgowan, founder of Yoga Records and A&R for the reissue label Numero Group and expert on the genre. “It's hard to imagine a more absurd and mundane thing than that tape.” Mcgowan is a large reason music tagged as “new age” has been getting a second look in recent years, built up by blogs like the now seemingly defunct Crystal Vibrations and compilations like Light in the Attic’s I Am the Center (for which Mcgowan wrote the liner notes). Today, however, trying to figure out what new age is as a genre isn’t as interesting as trying to figure out what you can put under the despised label. Would one consider Enya deserving of the tag? Or what about some of the work of Oneohtrix Point Never? Laraaji, who Pitchfork dubbed a “new-age icon” certainly fits the bill, but Spotify suggests his listeners also like Kraut rock groups like Cluster and Popol Vuh, along with minimalist composers like Terry Riley and William Basinski. Are they new age music? Is anything? “‘New age’ is a cluster of memes,” explains Mcgowan. “The sound parts—of intention towards inner and outer peace, the imagery and aesthetics—are fit ideas that will not go away and will only grow. The worthless parts—of chakras and crystal power and every other part that is clearly bullshit—only persist by riding along with the aesthetic, and because there are so many gullible people with money.” The thing is, all these years later, after being one of those people who also used to use the term “new age” as a catch-all for so much, I realize that music that falls under the label can, and often does, help me. * Inner and outer peace is a goal I’ve been striving for basically my entire life, and at some point, I found that simply changing when and what I listen to could be a big help. For years, my own morning routine was pretty much the same: wake up, go to the gym, and listen to the fastest, loudest music I could stream to get me ready for the day. Charge into it, I’d say. From black metal to ’80s hardcore bands like Negative Approach and Minor Threat to hip hop, guitars and drums, aggressive vocals and abrasive production all made up a big part of my morning. What I found was, yes, I’d start my working day intense and with an edge, but I’m a writer and editor, not an athlete. The more I pumped myself up, the quicker I deflated, and the more anxious and agitated I’d become throughout the day. Of course, it also didn’t help that I consumed more coffee than I probably should, but the combination made me feel a little more aggro than I like; I found myself prone to panic attacks on a constant basis. By the end of the day I had nothing to give. Then, one morning, I hit the wrong button, clicked random on my “writing” playlist (i.e. songs light on vocals and distortion), and up came Celestial Soul Portrait by the composer Iasos (released by Numero Group). I let it play out, running with it, breathing with it. What I found, and continue to find as I start my days listening to albums like the Mcgowan-produced Hearing Music by the artist Joanna Brouk, or even Eno’s ambient records, is that I’m truly more at peace, then and throughout the day, than when I begin with something fast, loud and angry. When I go to do my morning meditation after working out, my mind is calmer, things don’t race around in my head as much—a feat for somebody who has lived with A.D.H.D. their entire life. When Ezra Feinberg’s lush debut solo album Pentimento and Others was released earlier this year, the founder of the band Citay didn’t shy away from using the “new age” tag to describe his work. Like an ethereal, ambient John Fahey, there is a peacefulness to each song that I find helpful when, say, I want to go for a short hike to clear my mind. Yet Feinberg’s expertise goes beyond his musicianship: a practicing psychologist, he has a unique vantage point to understand the impact music can have on our lives and emotions. “Music is useful to your mind,” he says—it’s exciting to be able to turn your angst or sadness or fear into something functional when we listen to it. “Angry music is useful to your angry mind,” he says, “and sad music is useful to your sad mind… [But] the fact that we have something outside of us that we can identify with and that feels beautiful or that feels accurate in some way, in terms of how we feel, makes it so that we need it. You need it to elaborate where you're at.” I first came around to Feinberg’s music a little over a decade ago, in the middle of the Bush II administration. I wasn’t in a good place: In my early twenties and burnt out on everything, broke and with no health insurance to help me pay for treatment, not getting anywhere in my career or life, and just feeling flattened by the world. Maybe it was fate, but in 2005, I read an article in Arthur magazine by Michael Brownstein on “meditation as a subversive activity,” entitled, “Killing the Madman.” Co-mingling with my low feelings of self-worth and place in the world was the very state of things: endless wars, human suffering, the surveillance state, and the destruction of our planet. Brownstein’s piece was a life-changer. “The first revolutionary act—or fact—about meditation,” he writes, “is that it puts you in touch with what you’re feeling and thinking at this very moment. It puts you in touch with presence.” That’s when you realize that it’s not the president or a corporation that is in charge of your emotions—those belong to you. After that, I began practicing meditation. I’ve never settled on one form of practice that consistently suits me, so I dabble. After more than a decade, it’s helped bring me to a better understanding of other steps I should be taking because I really, truly want to feel good. I drink less, exercise more, and try to sit down with myself twice a day. Things were moving along, I was going in a good direction, and then 2016 happened. Then, just like every other rational person, my anxiety spiked. All the work I’d been doing had been upended one night in November. I felt I had been stripped of the control I thought I’d gained over my anxiety and depression. In an attempt to gain some measure of control, I started taking walks. Nothing too crazy: No Henry David Thoreau or Forrest Gump journey of self-discovery, nothing that took me far from my neighborhood. I live across the street from a large park, and as February started to settle in, as Trump started to destroy everything he touched, I found some measure of pleasure and stillness in being as close to alone somewhere in New York City as one could get. Sometimes I just listened to the wind blowing, the sound of car horns honking always present in the air. But mostly, I had some soundtrack coming through my earbuds. The day was silent and frozen, the main lawn occupied by a few squirrels. A few weeks earlier, I’d done something that I’d sworn I would never do: I started taking medication to help reduce my anxiety on my own as an adult. Unlike my childhood, where it was prescribed to me by adults who insisted each new med would lead to some cure of my ADHD or depression or anxiety, I had complete say in my decision. Although the anger and sadness about the state of things had not gone away, physically I felt as if a large leaden vest had been lifted off my being. After an over-medicated childhood led me to believe that taking pills was just not for me, the way I felt was a revelation. I stood there, alone in this great big open field, inhaling deeply through my nose, and pushing the air out through my mouth. I was listening to “The Angels of Comfort,” a nearly eleven-minute track by Iasos. I had a cup of hibiscus tea in my hand. I thought for a second how funny and crunchy it all felt, but that subsided after a few more breaths. I wanted, and still want, to get better, to feel happy, to overcome as many of the obstacles this world puts in front of me, and, most of all, to live in the moment. Like meditation, just admitting this felt like a subversive activity, and I realized that what I was listening to played into that. That, like meditation, medication, or any of the things we believe could possibly help lead us down a more enlightened, happier path, it’s easier to be skeptical of music labeled “new age.” For every Eno album for airports or Joanna Brouk, there’s always somebody out there who thinks they can make a profit off the idea that music can soothe and heal. There are people who can take basically any musical genre and pillage its reputation so badly that any other artist associated will no doubt suffer. That, more than anything, is the greatest sin of new age music: it’s a genre that really doesn’t exist, yet encompasses so many strains of sound that people don’t want to give a chance to or outright don’t understand. Yet as we hurdle towards who knows whatever is next, just taking simple solace in the repetition, the mellow, the quiet—these things, at least for me, can bring about a few moments of necessary peace. And that, in these anxious days, amounts to a treasure.
Free, or Something Like It

After their peak in the 1980s and 1990s, material premiums have become an increasingly rare advertising tactic.

Mom always told us that our yellow dishes came from dog food. The plates were sturdy, easy to stack—perfect for grapes, cookies, pizza slices with the babysitter. We used proper plates for dinner, but still put our milk in the plastic tumblers, picking fights over who got the one with a handle. A few chipped or broke over the years. Three kids put dinnerware through a lot of spills. But that was the appeal of these dishes: even if they did break, they were free. Sort of. The school bus-colored dishware residing in my mother's cupboards to this day are free premiums: material items offered as incentives by retailers in exchange for making a purchase or completing another action. Sometimes these premiums are packed in with the item, like the cards of racist baseball legends, acrobatic toothpick-and-paper clowns, and plastic dogs and wolves found in Cracker Jack boxes of yesteryear that collectors will now pay hundreds for. But more often, consumers have to put in a little effort to get their reward: open an account, buy a certain amount of a product, sign up for a rewards program, or save up and send in packaging. These extras aren't actually free—you always have to buy something to get them — but they seem free, thus increasing the perceived value of the original purchase. Plus, the time you spend engaged in pursuit of the premium deepens your relationship to the company. Mom had to buy a lot of Purina dog food to get that dinnerware. The plates long outlasted the collies fed by the dog food, and when I got pets of my own, I started buying Purina cat food instinctively. But, after their peak in the 1980s and 1990s, material premiums have become an increasingly rare advertising tactic. Marlboro doesn't give out miles to be redeemed for cowboy hats and cargo pants anymore. Marketing is as motivated by trends as any other industry, and this tactic got tired around the turn of the century. The quality of manufactured goods has declined, so they don't seem as worth it; besides, with more and more sales taking place online, physical rewards seem less appealing than, say, free shipping. Discounts, coupons, and rebates abound, as do virtual rewards. Even Cracker Jacks have eschewed their iconic prizes. Instead of digging through caramel popcorn for a sticker, temporary tattoo, or other ephemeral piece of precious junk, kids will find a code for an augmented-reality mobile game. An app does seem like less of a treasure. But it's still an incentive, both for the bored customer at a baseball game, and for the advertiser who gets something perhaps more valuable than loyalty: their data. * Benjamin T. Babbitt and Phineas T. Barnum were good friends back in the 1850s, each the other's only peer in advertising. I like to imagine them as characters on a hangout sitcom, coming up with wacky half-hour schemes to lure the burgeoning class of American consumers into a renaissance of suckers. For as it was circus man Barnum who paved the path of relentless self-promotion that so many Kardashians follow today, it was Babbitt who figured out the power of a promise of something free (in this case, a lithograph) to get customers to buy soap from him and not someone else. Premiums—usually called gifts, presents, or prizes in the 19th century—caught on quick. By the 1860s, gift book enterprises11Not to be confused with gift books, an industry of coffee-table-esque books that thrived from the 1820s through the 1850s. were common fixtures in urban centers, a sort of lottery whereby the purchaser of a book would get a random gift, according to Dr. Wendy Woloson's "Wishful Thinking: Retail Premiums in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America." These stores were finely furnished, but the books were mostly unsold remainders, otherwise unsellable, and the gifts were usually very cheap—twenty-five cents at the low end. The tantalizing prospect of a $100 watch almost never materialized, but it was there, bringing customers back to the thimbles and toiletries they actually won again and again. It wasn't the prize that was really the appeal. It was the anticipation, the excitement of what might be, what might transform them into something new, better, shiny too. These early premiums schemes were largely composed of "marginal, slightly shady independent operators," said Dr. Woloson, who is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers. Gift book exchanges weren't exactly ethical, manipulating consumer emotions to get them to buy two things they wouldn't have wanted in the first place, but at least they didn't defraud war widows, as would other free premiums of the era. Prize packages were sealed envelopes filled with "writing notions," basically scraps of paper unsuitable for printing elsewhere, and a cheap pin like you might find today in a gumball machine capsule. They were sold around the country, a sort of premium cum lottery cum multi-level-marketing scheme wherein agents (often soldiers, and later, their widows) were led to believe that they could make $15 a week22$240 in today’s economy selling prize packages (they did not). Even more exploitative were gift distributions, a complicated scheme in which con men leveraged people's #FOMO to sell tickets to lotteries that never actually existed. They were still effective: as many as 2,000 of these schemes circulated in the 1860s, taking advantage of a consumer market that was both avid and naive. "[R]etail premium schemes played on people's deep-seated emotions—hope, anticipation, desire, fear, and anxiety—and in doing so, encouraged and shaped a new consuming audience on a mass scale," Dr. Woloson wrote in "Wishful Thinking." "Free is the most powerful word in the history of marketing," said Dr. Jason Chambers, Associate Professor of Advertising at the University of Illinois. The prospect of getting something for nothing made consumers "itchy with desire," to quote Dr. Woloson. Even after gift distributions collapsed as all cons do, premiums continued to evolve as a tactic. Adolph Busch was especially fond of giving loyal customers hat pins, watch fobs, and jack knives branded with his logo; one iconic Busch premium was a print of Custer's Last Stand, given away first to promote what was then the new "draught beer for connoisseurs," Michelob. If you're like me and you're lucky enough to still have your grandma around, she probably remembers the next big moment in free premiums: S&H Green Stamps. Though the practice of giving tokens for loyalty goes back to Condor coins of the late 18th century, it wasn't until the late 19th century that these programs really began in earnest. They took their cues from the success of programs in which women received rewards for selling soap to their friends (in practice, closer to Avon than Younique). "Trading stamps were first issued in 1892 by the Milwaukee-based Schuster's department store, and were originally called the blue trading stamp system. Shoppers received a certain number of stamps with each product purchase, which they then pasted into booklets designed for the purpose," writes Dr. Woloson in a chapter on premiums in her upcoming book, The History of Crap. "Each booklet [represented] $50 in retail purchases, and could be redeemed for one dollar in merchandise [for a] two percent discount." The measly discount wasn't the appeal: it was the enjoyment of collecting, and the attendant anticipation it built. These booklets recalled another popular pastime of the Victorian age: scrapbooking. It was a sentimental era, and people were already inclined to hold onto stuff; Sperry and Hutchinson just monetized that notion. The many consumers who were incentivized by the prospect of stamps but never actually redeemed them only increased the profit margin. And for those who did redeem their stamps, it was still a good way to get rid of merchandise that was not high quality. As the country entered the Depression, the word "free" was more powerful than ever—with a new focus on practicalities. In the booming economy of the jazz age, rewards were what Dr. Woloson called "petty luxuries, [such as] decorated china vases, or a gold-tipped writing pen, or something that you didn't need but something that you might want." But when budgets got tight, utility won out over shininess, and decoration took a backseat to durability. Depression glassware was everywhere in the 1930s retail landscape, packaged with cereal, handed out to moviegoers, and included with tanks of gas—increasing sales in the worst economy for a number of different industries.  "[It was] an opportunity for different manufacturers to support one another in different ways," said Dr. Chambers. And though they aren't top quality (air bubbles were common) the patterns and colors of the translucent bowls, plates, and other dinnerware are still sought after today. [[{"fid":"6704511","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] Another Depression-era premium had a more substantive and even spiritual impact on our cultural fabric. Under ancient Kosher dietary regulations, coffee, considered a legume, had been forbidden during Passover since its emergence in the 10th century.  "Jewish grocery stores would put away coffee with the chametz under the incorrect assumption that coffee beans were kitniyot when in fact they are technically a fruit not a bean in that sense,” explained Elie Rosenfeld, CEO of Joseph Jacobs Advertising, in this Forward piece by Anne Cohen. But then, Joseph Jacobs entered the scene. In the 1920s, Jacobs convinced a Manhattan rabbi to spread the word that coffee beans were Kosher while talking Maxwell House into targeting this demographic. A decade later, Maxwell began printing a lovely blue and white haggadah (the text read at Passover seder services) to Jewish customers who bought a can of Maxwell House. Maxwell has printed 50 million copies of the Maxwell Haggadah, and it was even used by President Obama at White House seders. With the advent of World War II, America's advertising and manufacturing efforts were consumed with the fighting overseas. "A lot of the cheap giveaways were imported from other places, like Japan and Germany, and we're of course not getting those products from those places," said Dr. Chambers. "[American] manufacturers were contributing to the war effort. They're not making TV trays." Instead, they were making tanks. The attentions of the women, primary redeemers of premiums, were elsewhere too. "Women [were] thinking about stamps and coupons and things, but not to get free stuff, it's because that's what they needed to do to get their butter for the week," said Dr. Woloson. Whereas green stamps added value and an element of anticipation to the chore of grocery shopping, rationing elevated the collecting of coupons to a necessity. But once the war was over, America's consumer spirit was back and hungrier than ever before. The baby boom brought focus to children as a major market; unhardened by the difficulties of the Depression and war, these kids were ready to hoard cheap toys. This wasn't a new tactic, exactly: the first premium targeted at children were Kellogg's Jungleland moving picture books, included as a part of its packaging in 1908, and bubblegum came with baseball cards starting in the 1940s. But it was Sam Gold, of Gold Premiums of New York and Gold Manufacturing Corporation, who really believed that catching the attention of children was the best way to sell to their parents. His companies made toys, cutouts, gum, and other kid-friendly products for cereals, pioneering the Saturday morning cartoon tie-in; the first premium Gold sold was a Rin-Tin-Tin telegraph key with Nabisco cereal. In a plot twist straight out of Mad Men, Gold died during a 1965 premium presentation to Cracker Jack. While they were indoctrinating children through cereal box prizes, marketers were slowly realizing that another major market could be targeted through premiums. Advertisers had long misused images of black Americans as grotesque stereotypes to appeal to white consumers, and to be sure, this continued after WWII; one online collection of Sam Gold premiums includes Aunt Jemima paper dolls from the 1940s. But some advertisers were beginning to integrate, especially with the launch of major black magazines like Ebony and Jet as powerful vehicles to reach black consumers. "The main advertising manufacturers that were specifically interested in the African-American consumer market [were interested] in ways that were different from the general consumer market," said Dr. Chambers. "In those cases, you still would have seen the same kind of things that you'd see in the general market—they just had a different focus. Coke and Pepsi in particular [in the '40s through the '60s] utilized aspects of African-American history as a free premium or pack-in or send-away." Tobacco and beverage companies in particular launched premium programs focused on African-American history lasting for decades; for one example, Dr. Chambers recalled busts of black innovators by famed sculptor Ruth Inge Hardison in a series called "Ingenious Americans" as a premium for Old Taylor whiskey. Though the market was specializing to target different demographics, white women at home were still as much a target as ever. Housewares were a hot market in 1950s premiums. Boxes of detergent came with dish towels, knives, and flatware right in the carton. Decorated jars of jelly and peanut butter and decanters of maple syrup to be kept and reused after their contents were spent were often the premiums themselves, capitalizing on the Depression mentality of repurposing everything. While premiums were often right inside the packaging (or existed as the packaging itself), consumers were also willing to put in more effort and send away for their prizes. After all, housewives were expected to put their homes and children before themselves. They were used to giving away their own valuable time. Trading stamp programs, which required more effort, flourished among housewives until the gas crisis of the 1970s, when pinched gas stations stopped accepting stamps. * As trading stamps faded, premium programs grew. Cereal box premiums were so successful in targeting children that their advertisement on television was banned in 1974. Cigarette companies, reeling from similar restrictions in 1972, competed with each other to attract customers through rewards programs. Dr. Chambers remembered his father switching back and forth between different brands based on who had the gifts he wanted. This new wave of prizes were more likely to be branded, increasing the advertising value for corporations looking for a new foothold in the cultural consciousness. For some, the premiums were as habit-forming as nicotine. "[In] the 1980s and 1990s, I [was] addicted to getting free things," wrote Mary Potter Kenyon in her 2013 book Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America's Extreme Obsession. Kenyon acquired a wide variety of products from these giveaways—a fancy umbrella from Gloria Vanderbilt perfume boxes, a coffee maker from coffee lids for her mom, Christmas lights from M&M bags. And especially toys and branded T-shirts for her six children. Until her teenage daughter told her that she didn't want a denim jacket with the Energizer Bunny on it, the Kenyon kids were walking billboards. "Growing up poor, to give my kids this magic Christmas was an amazing thing for me, and it was all with company premiums," Kenyon said. Kenyon put a lot of her time and effort into getting premiums by sending in packaging, receipts, and proofs of purchase. When she ran low on her own meticulously organized store of flattened boxes and saved wrappers, she turned to her family, friends, and neighbors—and their trash. She rooted through just about every garbage can she came across at the public pool or park for Hershey's wrappers to redeem for T-shirts. "We went to the swimming pool just as much for the swimming as for the candy wrappers in the trash bin," she said. [[{"fid":"6704506","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Kenyon's deal-hunting mindset was typical of the refunders in the 1970s through 1990s; there were magazines and conventions devoted to this community of consumers who sought out coupons, premiums, and rebates from companies. But while Kenyon stayed inside the law, others did not. Some refunders were way beyond simply using a neighbor's legally purchased discards: they were buying cash registers to create fake receipts, pooling their resources at conventions, and renting PO Boxes under false names to avoid the one-per-household requirement. In one case, the town of Rock Valley, Iowa was reprimanded by the USPS investigators in 1992 for a cash-for-trash scheme that involved half of the town's 2540 residents, netting a local fundamentalist religious school half a million dollars over two decades. As savvy early advertisers exploited credulous 19th century consumers, coupon queens and rebate gamers exploited advertising executives who underestimated the savvy of dedicated deal-seekers. This contributed to a tightening of these programs in the late 1990s. Before long, premiums were becoming rarer and rarer; even boxes of cereal aren't packaged with toys anymore. Fraud wasn't the only factor that doomed the free premium frenzy. Pepsi and Coke and Marlboro and Camel and other retailers were constantly one-upping each other, escalating their goods to attract new customers. Pepsi found themselves in a costly lawsuit when they advertised a Harrier jump jet for seven million points and someone called their bluff.33It was also mocked in an B-plot on a seventh season episode of 30 Rock (the one with Liz Lemon's wedding), in which Jenna was herself a free premium in a 1990s Surge commercial. Pepsi won, but the case itself was representative of the arms race premium programs found themselves in in the late 1990s. Premiums could be a nuisance for corporations outside of the courtroom, too. "Manufacturers found the opportunity to transition to other things that had fewer logistical headaches," said Dr. Chambers, noting the possibility of breakage and all the other costs that come with transporting physical goods. Advertisers are always trying to trick you a little bit—you know this, even though they try to make you forget. And when you wise up, they change their tactics. Consumers were more and more used to these inducements, which no longer held the power they did 100 years before. The quality of cheap goods were not improving. Carcinogens like soda pop and cigarettes—two of the most premium-friendly industries—fell out of fashion as minimalism came back into style. A new generation of advertisers were similarly bored with the advertising tactics that had fascinated their mothers. Both sides of the equation were getting more sophisticated, outgrowing the tactic. Everyone was ready to move on to the next thing. The next thing was the Internet. The rise of the World Wide Web changed the landscape of retail and advertising as much as it did everything else. Premium programs were difficult to transact online; virtual rewards are way easier. Gasoline points aren't going to break in delivery. Discounts and free shipping are much more popular with online shoppers, as are rebates (which may explain why they survived while their cousin the premium grew frail). The premiums of yore didn't collect increasingly valuable customer data, and they're not as targeted as the ads you're probably blocking right now. * Premiums are not dead, exactly. The beauty industry still loves its gifts with purchase. Tote bags offered as inducements to donate to NPR or subscribe to The New Yorker are intellectual status symbols. When I bought some axe earrings from Etsy recently, I was pleased but not surprised to find a little axe pendant included as a freebie. Pepsi tries to restart PepsiStuff every so often, and Purina still advertises its rewards program on the back of the bags of food I buy for my cat, though I'm nowhere near organized enough to take advantage of it. A friend with young children recently received a number of tiny Marvel figurines for buying participating products at Kroger; she plans on making it into her own rewards program to encourage her young children to do summer reading. Children are still motivated by toys, and Happy Meals will always come with a pack-in premium. "McDonalds is different," said Dr. Chambers. "There's nobody that's done anything as effective as Happy Meals." It is their point of entry for future customers, and it offers its own opportunities to create revenue through advertising tie-ins. Because of their reach and their ubiquity, they become that wonderful partner for the Olympics or Disney." Though there have been some occasional hits from other fast food chains—Hardee's had the California Raisins in the 1980s, and a friend on Facebook recalled asking for Land Before Time puppets from Burger King for Christmas one year—no one else can consistently compete. "It is their continued point of difference, especially in that young person's space," Dr. Chambers said. Happy Meal toys are not going away until McDonald's goes away. Business gifts are also thriving, especially the arena of inducements to big events like baseball games. But there are signs of fatigue even there. While swag is still a major prong in marketing pharmaceuticals, even they have seen better days: OxyContin doesn't make pedometers anymore. Sometimes getting a reward isn't just about the item—it's about the feeling of getting a little control back from a capitalist structure we cannot opt out of. Not long after the 2008 recession, there was a brief craze for couponing, chronicled in the 2010-2012 TLC show Extreme Couponing. "We were screwed by the system, and we want to screw them back," Dr. Woloson said of the post-recession surge in couponing. "It's a form of empowerment." The idea of empowerment is one way to build loyalty, even if it feels like revenge. The political can build a personal connection to a brand, too. Last summer, Penzeys Spices gave away Mexican vanilla with purchase as a fuck-you to President Trump, a political, memorable, and effective free premium that caused sales to spike and transformed the company's brand, earning goodwill from liberals everywhere. "The old methods of marketing are coming to an end," Bill Penzey bragged of his giveaways in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "and this is the new marketing." But it really isn't that new. You won't see banks giving away toasters unless you're watching 1990s period piece Fresh Off The Boat, but banks do sometimes use premiums to induce new customers; I walked by a grill offered as an incentive by the Walmart bank while editing the second draft of this piece. My husband, a mailman, reported from his route one day to tell me about a display of dog accessories, wine corks, and backpacks advertised to new customers at Landmark Bank in Lawrence, Kansas. When I called Becky Tourtillott, Landmark's vice president of marketing, she confirmed that the days of "one-size-fits-all" rewards are long gone, and even among the rewards they do offer, premiums aren't the real draw. "Of our top ten most redeemed items, eight of them are gift cards," Tourtillott said. Even S&H Green Stamps have transitioned to virtual rewards in a bid for continued survival. When you can buy anything you want easily online, money is often more enticing than a hunk of plastic. But the thing about money is that it's cold and unfeeling; as on any big occasion, a gift is more fun to unwrap than a check. "They're trying to make an appeal on an emotional rather than an economic register," said Dr. Woloson. In "Wishful Thinking," she quoted early twentieth century writer Henry S. Bunting, noting that premiums worked because they appealed “not to reason, but to the heart, to the emotions, to sentiment, to good will on the basis of implied acquaintanceship.” But while they're fondly remembered, premiums are only sporadically relevant in the 2018 marketplace. Some of the tactics remain; Dr. Woloson pointed out that virtual rewards programs use the language of inclusion (e.g. clubs, membership) even though "you're just customer, you're just a data point." The retro appeal of free trinkets can't compete with corporate thirst for your personal information to better target you. "There's always the possibility of nostalgia marketing, if you want to utilize that," Dr. Chambers said, but he's skeptical that premiums will ever come back in a big way. But the sentimental residue they always sought to leave remains. We still have a relationship with these companies. My aunt attributes her lifelong love of swans to a soap-related free premium her older sisters ordered for her as a baby. My grandma recalls the bike she got my uncle Tom from green stamps. My dad's obsession with baseball was launched in part by baseball cards on the back of Post cereal. My mom got animated and nostalgic talking about a particular premium: a director’s chair emblazoned with my name, which I adored as a child. Mary Potter Kenyon once had a dedicated room with shelves and cabinets full of old receipts and flattened boxes and empty bags. When she moved in 1998, it prompted a realization: the era of free stuff was over, and she needed space for her six children more than she needed space for trash. "There was no point to saving all my garbage anymore," she said. She made a bonfire and burned all the scraps she'd spent so long collecting, incinerating her dreams of all the things she once hoped to get for free, or something like it.
Pride of Patchogue

My hometown is famous for a hate crime, and ten years after that murder, it’s not clear much progress has been made.

No one walks in Patchogue. To walk in this town on the south shore of Long Island is to draw unwanted attention. Why doesn’t that person have a car? a driver might think of a pedestrian as they pass. What has gone wrong in their life? Some sidewalks abruptly end, making it clear pedestrians are unwanted. Here, we walk only to the edges of our property. Those with dogs are granted special dispensation, of course. Conformity is key in this village and its surrounding town. Main Street is marked on its western and eastern edges by the massive new location of Blue Point Brewery and the long-standing post office, renamed in 2005 for Navy SEAL Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy who died at age twenty-nine in the War in Afghanistan. Not far away, there’s a military recruitment office. A few years ago, the library was the only destination. Now, restaurants, bars, and a theater line what was once a strip of shuttered storefronts, a jarring change for all of us who moved away in search of those things. Even the library has changed, with a seed catalogue and programming for queer teens. A few blocks to the south, you’ll find the Catholic parish, a middle school, the village hall, the train station that takes you to the city or to Montauk, a gentrifying beach destination. The bay is nearby; the ferry to Fire Island always accessible. Patchogue is a small, suburban area marked by its proximity to water. There’s a gift shop now where you can buy sweatshirts with the town’s name in a cute font, its latitude and longitude beneath; I have one and don’t know whether I wear it ironically, whether my hometown is a place I can proudly represent. Mayor Paul Pontieri, who’s presided over the village since 2004, tells me just how important conformity is when we meet at town hall on the day of the school district’s high school graduation. I’ll be there: My sister will be walking in a red cap and gown, class of 2018. “Once you move into a neighborhood, there are two things you do immediately,” he tells me. “The first thing you do is you look up and down the block. If everyone mows their lawn every week, you mow your lawn every week. If people painted their houses so they’re nice, paint your house. Whatever it is: Don’t stand out. Be part of the neighborhood. Don’t stand out,” he repeats. “The second thing you do, 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock at night, sit on your front steps and listen to the neighborhood. If it’s quiet, you’re quiet. If people are out and they’re playing volleyball—whatever they’re doing. Don’t stand out.” Don’t stand out, the suburban mantra. Certainly don’t ride a bike. Never walk. This is where I spent the first twenty-three years of my life, right on the outskirts of the village lines: picking up gallons of milk for my mother from the market, going to the library as a teenager to take out The Andy Warhol Diaries, being dragged to 7:30 mass on Sunday mornings, and going to my first yoga classes. The neighbourhood was never wealthy; Starbucks would never want to open a store there. While the county, Suffolk, regularly pops up on the list of the richest in the country, the median household income in Patchogue is about $70,000 a year. In Patchogue, the working class reigns. At my sister’s graduation, the kids are seated in the center of the school’s football field with the onlookers on metal bleachers in hot sun. The principal and superintendent give discouraging speeches masked as motivation; the principal defines adulthood as “working full-time and handing someone else your paycheck.” He repeats this again and again, the way the mayor did, thinking it wise, telling the audience we can feel free to quote him.   *  Marcelo Lucero didn’t have to walk. The thirty-seven-year-old had a car, one he used to get to his job at a dry cleaners in Riverhead, twenty-five miles away. Lucero grew up in Gualaceo, Ecuador, like many residents of Patchogue, and moved to the States in 1992 to work and send money back to his family. He had been building a house there, to share with his mother and siblings. The night of November 8, 2008, he and his friend Angel Loja decided to walk around the village. They went out drinking, like anyone might on a Friday, like I was doing that same night thirty miles away in Huntington, celebrating my 23rd birthday. Lucero’s nonconformity didn’t end with his occasionally walking. He was an Ecuadorian man, an undocumented resident in a downtrodden town filled with Irish and Italian Catholics. This man, Catholic but undocumented, with a car but walking, was surrounded that night on Railroad Avenue by seven teenagers; they were seniors at the same local high school from which my sister would eventually graduate. The boys attacked, and one, Kevin Shea, threw a punch. Lucero removed his belt and whipped one of them in the head; another, Jeffrey Conroy, retaliated by stabbing Lucero in the right collarbone. Lucero’s friend, Loja, had run to an alley for safety. When Lucero finally made it over to his friend, he left a trail of blood along the pavement and collapsed. He was pronounced dead an hour and a half later, the official cause listed as a four-inch-deep stab wound to the chest. “A Killing In a Town Where Latinos Sense Hate,” read a New York Times headline five days after Lucero’s murder. Between 1990 and 2000, the Latin population of Patchogue jumped from fourteen percent to twenty-four percent. While the population of the town changed, the demographics of its governing bodies did not. By effectively ignoring the existence of what was a quarter of the population, two Patchogues came to exist: One in the mainstream, with representation on the village council, the other simply trying to survive in an openly hostile environment. In her book about Lucero’s death, Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town, journalist Mirta Ojito suggests this area so seemingly close to New York City could be another country entirely. When Donald Trump decided to campaign in the village during the 2016 election, The Guardian called the venue where he rallied “lowbrow.” It’s a town famous for a hate crime—and while the last few years have led to cosmetic changes, ten years after Lucero’s murder, it’s not clear much other progress has been made. *  The village of Patchogue once had hotels; it was a destination for people looking for a reprieve from the city. It held onto some of its mom-and-pop-ness through the ’80s, despite the rise of malls (strip and otherwise) taking people away from Main Street. But by the ‘90s, “Patchogue was a little bit of a rough town,” says Jessica Valentin, now forty, who just opened a gallery called Muñeca Arthouse in the village. She grew up in the town to the north, Medford; the neighboring suburbs share a high school. She remembers Swezey’s, a family-owned department store that once served as the linchpin of local commerce. It closed in 2003 after over a century in business and a decade of village decline. I’m seven years younger than Valentin; the dilapidation and depression are all I can remember from my childhood. “My mom would say, ‘Just don’t get off Main Street.’ It stayed that way for a while.” She remembers hearing the rumor as a kid that Hitler’s grandson lived nearby. In reality, it was his nephew; a fitting myth for a town that would become famous in the future for the murder of an undocumented immigrant. After Swezey’s closed, some businesses held on: BrickHouse Brewery, Gino’s Pizza, Blum’s for bathing suits, the Colony Shop for Communion and baptism outfits. These were spread down the block, dotting the otherwise bleak landscape. But the aughts brought some renewal. What the growth in the Latin population in the early 2000s meant to me and many others was that there were businesses starting up again on Main Street, like Gallo, a Colombian restaurant that advertises Mojito Mondays and Tequila Tuesdays. Where once there was a party store there is now a supermarket where you can buy conchas and Goya’s entire product line. Twenty percent of economic output on Long Island is due to immigrants, said David Kallick, Director of the Immigration Research Initiative at the Fiscal Policy Institute, in 2017. But it seemed that then-County Executive Steve Levy saw, in those recent arrivals, a threat. During his time in office, his rhetoric was openly anti-immigrant; he was a more polished proto-Trump, throwing around the word illegal and accusing women of coming to the U.S. to have “anchor babies,” born-citizen children. County Legislator Jack Eddington gained notoriety for breaking up the volleyball games commonly played among immigrant communities in nearby Farmingville, where a common site of day laborer pickup had become a hotbed of controversy in the county.   In June of 2006, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s massive report of hate crime violence in Suffolk County, Levy mocked activists who were protesting what they saw as racist enforcement of zoning laws targeting Latin communities. The report, titled “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.,” went on to state that he referred to activists as “this one percent lunatic fringe” and said he was “not intimidated by their politically correct histrionics.” This local rhetoric was further emboldened by Fox News personalities like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly, who featured Levy on his show. In the days following Lucero’s murder, Levy would tell Newsday that the slaying would be a “one day story” if not for the ongoing furor over his bombast. The town was changing in lots of ways. Not long after Pontieri took on the role of mayor, money began to move back into the village. Before him, the job was part-time. “I quickly realized that if you were going to get anything done, you had to commit to the job,” he tells me. In 2006, Bobbique, a barbecue restaurant, opened. New housing developments, the first named Copper Beach, began to pop up, thanks to an infusion of $3.7 million from Levy. The residents who were displaced, Pontieri says, were relocated and young professionals moved in, if they could afford a $156,000 apartment. He believes a teacher making $42,000 could, and perhaps he was right: The median age in the village is now thirty-four, he says. An arts council was established in 2008 with the addition of ArtSpace, a low-income residence and studio building, thanks to another infusion of money from Steve Levy—$3.5 million this time. Rapid changes to the village created restaurants and a sheen of culture. There’s now an independent record shop, a store selling goth and rockabilly tchotchkes, and Valentin’s gallery. Starbucks never moved in, but there are two local coffee shops.  Valentin, who, like my father, is Puerto Rican, now serves as the first Latin person on the arts council. The board of village trustees remains all white despite a third of the residents now being Latin.  As the town changed, old prejudices continued to flare. Attacks on immigrants in the area had been consistent and ongoing since the late ‘90s. A construction worker from Honduras had been assaulted by teenagers in October of 1999; a month later, a Mexican man was beaten by his employer and several fellow employees. There are thirtysomething incidents like this documented in the Southern Poverty Law Center report—severe and disgusting, focused and hateful—that occurred before Lucero’s murder. The growth of these crimes in Suffolk County and Patchogue mirrored that of the country: According to the report, FBI statistics showed a forty percent increase in anti-Latino hate crimes from 2003 to 2007 and a fifty percent increase in hate groups from 2000 to 2008. The violence was consistently escalating and many saw no repercussions, as the undocumented local community was too fearful of law enforcement. * In a short video series, reporter Ana P. Gutierrez tries to answer the question, “Who Was Marcelo Lucero?” From Ojito’s book, we know he took pride in his clothing and was a brother to not just his own siblings, but Loja. Gutierrez talked to a childhood friend who recounted their happy years in Gualaceo, noting that in the early ‘90s, most of their peers were moving to the U.S. for economic opportunity not available in Ecuador. She shows a grade-school class where almost every child has a parent in the States; a boy cries asking for his father to return. In the final installment, Marcelo’s mother, Rosario, talks about the poverty in which he and his siblings spent their youth. “I’m not missing the economic help, but the person,” she says. “Because thank God, I have my hands to continue to work.” There is a facelessness to the conversation around immigration from countries in Central and South America in the United States, a focus on economic impact and claims of violence. In Patchogue, and on Long Island more broadly, we have Marcelo; his memory itself a permanent monument to the effects of racist rhetoric. Yet Suffolk County is Trump country, according to Politico, the numbers, and the stickers I see on pickup trucks. In 2017, the county welcomed the president; he addressed a crowd of mostly uniformed police at Suffolk County Community College, where he told them not to be afraid to get “rough.” The sketch of Marcelo Lucero’s life has been drawn for us; his mother, sister, and brother have all wept in grief on the streets of our village. Yet de facto segregation remains, emboldened by openly anti-immigrant sentiment from the highest office in our land. What has changed in Patchogue in these ten years? There are places to go out. * It was Anthony Hartford’s idea to go “fuck up some Mexicans” that night in 2008, according to Ojito’s book. The group of friends did this often, apparently—went “beaner hopping.” They referred to all Latin people as Mexican, to them a slur, though one of the seven, José Pacheco, was Puerto Rican and black. While this was happening about a mile from the house where I grew up and still lived at the time, I was drunk on sangria with friends. A brother of one of the boys involved sat at my table at a pricey Mexican restaurant; he smiles in a Polaroid from that night. No one in that photo yet knows there are sirens blaring on the village streets, that high school boys are being interrogated on a corner, that the one who easily turns over the knife won’t know he’s killed someone for hours. The next morning, I woke up twenty-three, the resident of a town redefined forever by a trail of blood. In the wake of Lucero’s murder, Patchogue would change drastically. Ten years on, and the village streets where the seven boys were arrested are almost unrecognizable. But the wound opened by Lucero’s death is still wide open, and the pattern of harassment it drew attention to continues. In many ways, his blood—long ago wiped away—still stains the streets. * “I would never call Long Island ‘all-American,’” my partner from Houston, Texas, tells me, when I ask him for an outsider perspective on why the place where I grew up might be such a hotbed for anti-immigrant sentiment. And maybe he’s right. We didn’t go to Friday night football games. There were no casseroles being served. We ate pizza and bagels; we went to the Greek diner. Everything we could call a culture came from those who had once been marked as “non-white,” as “ethnic,” as “immigrant.” When we went to the city to catch a game or a show, we were “bridge and tunnel”—garbage, a disruption to the urban landscape with our mall-bought clothes. My mother told me recently that women at our church would comment negatively on the town’s growing Latin population. “My children are Puerto Rican,” she would tell them. My brother and I happily stopped going to mass when she stopped waking us up for it, never asking why. When I worked at a Starbucks off the highway, a man came in who couldn’t speak English, just asking for some water. The manager refused him. Here we were, generations descended from immigrants, greeting new arrivals with metaphorical pitchforks and literal knives, with the slur “illegal.” Not all-American, but playing at the characterization in all its violence.  Mayor Pontieri likes to bring people into his office to show them the image of his grandfather paving the roads that would create the village of Patchogue. He points to his tan skin and short stature, comparing that Italian man with the more recent arrivals from Gualaceo, Ecuador. * I’ve admired the brick Congregational Church on Patchogue’s Main Street from afar for my entire life, envying its ornate stained glass windows. (My Catholic parish nearby was made from wood and wasn’t as regal; the pastor when I was in school would refer to it as his “ark,” as though it was a capsized boat in which we were all stuck.) But I only stepped inside the Congregational Church for the first time this summer, to talk to Reverend Dwight Wolter, who presided over Lucero’s funeral. There are people on the lawn and on the stairs; people with nowhere else to be. I am visibly confused about how to get in. They tell me to ring the bell. “No, the other one.” They’re very familiar with the church; I find out later many of them call this lawn, these steps, home. Finally, Reverend Wolter opens up the door. He is on the phone but eager to show me his current project, a collection of donated toilet paper with which he hopes to build the world’s largest ever pyramid of bathroom tissue across the street in the plaza of the military recruitment office. It will bring attention to the fact that necessities like this, as well as women’s sanitary napkins, are taxed and not covered by grant funding. He has me take his photo with some of it before leading me on a tour and pointing out where Marcelo Lucero’s body lay in a coffin one day in 2008 and where, weeks later, the reverend hosted what the New York Times called a “hate-crime circus” in which immigrants were able to give private recorded testimony of their experiences living in Suffolk. The reverend had only been in Patchogue for about a year before the murder. Yet, Wolter tells me in his office, he knew it was coming. “And people who might read this, and some of the elected officials would say, ‘Here we go again.’ Marcelo Lucero was almost written into the script.” We are two people in an office and he’s preaching to me about the place where I grew up but there’s logic in what he’s saying. “When I came here, the first word that came to mind when I toured Patchogue was ‘blight,’” he says. “The second word was ‘promise.’”   Coverage of Lucero’s murder focused on that “blight” and what, to outsiders, seemed like a jarring disparity of cultures in the suburb shadowed by the world’s greatest metropolis. In Hunting Season, Ojito refers to the Medford train station where the seven teens spent an earlier portion of the night as belonging “to a world so different from the city that it almost seems located in another country.” Reporters working on the story saw us and our landscape as foreign, which was jarring yet telling at the time. The writers were trying to both distance themselves from and make sense of how something so heinous could happen: Clearly, this place must be evil. Believing it wasn’t, though, that this event was an anomaly, has allowed the town to forgive itself, to simply add restaurants and boutiques and call it change.   *  Jeffrey Conroy was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime for the slaying of Lucero, which he’s still serving now. He’s twenty-seven and has been incarcerated since the age of seventeen. The other attackers have all since been released.  At his sentencing, Conroy told the judge, “I’m really sorry for what happened to Mr. Lucero.” That passive voice. From jail in 2010, he told a reporter about not being able to look at Joselo, Marcelo’s brother. “I feel bad for him. I got a brother, too. I couldn’t imagine him dying.” There’s a child’s lack of understanding here, of his own culpability. The boy who threw the first punch is now a construction worker. Another posts anti-black memes publicly on Facebook. One seems particularly enamored of the American flag and another moved to Oakland, California. One of them seems to have disappeared, but a sixth was recently arrested for cocaine possession. I have Facebook friends in common with all of them. They are, for the most part, living the normal lives of twentysomethings from working-class Suffolk. The boys who were walked from the sixth precinct in white jumpsuits are now men. Nothing about them is as interesting or significant as the conversation they began with their cruelty, their rage, their boredom, their stupidity. Patchogue may forever be marked, but with the exception of Conroy, their involvement in Lucero’s murder is a footnote on their lives, seemingly regarded as a youthful mistake. I send one of them a message on Facebook, saying I’m a reporter working on a story about the ten-year anniversary of Lucero’s death. He writes back that he won’t talk about the event and I should never message him again. For days afterwards, I’m shaken, worried word will spread, that someone will find my family’s home and try to hurt them. *  Unlike my sister, I did not graduate from the local public high school but a private Catholic school about forty-five minutes away. I always felt like I had one foot in Patchogue and one foot out. When local emo was popular, I was listening to Radiohead, reading imported British music magazines, and watching French movies on Sundance Channel. It was only when I left the town that I discovered that, by urban standards, I was a dilettante. I thought I’d leave that place and slip easily into some artistic milieu. Instead, I found my own class-based resentment; it just focused upwards. But as a teenager I did seek, and find, local magic. When there was a massive blackout in the summer of 2003, we ran around in sprinklers in darkened backyards. We packed seven people into cars built for only five to go see shitty ska bands. There was always the water, the diner. There was minigolf, laser tag, Borders Books and Music. At a venue miles and miles away, my friends and I saw bands that I read about in those British magazines, like Starsailor. It was all so “Soco Amaretto Lime”—the song by Brand New, a band from Merrick, another town on Long Island: Young, in love, with the low fuel light on for days, and a foreboding sense that in this place you could get stuck pretending to be eighteen forever. Some, though, not content to play minigolf or without money, spent their Soco Amaretto Lime years hunting men with brown skin.   *  Patchogue, once empty, is now a place people tweet about hanging out. Restaurant opening after restaurant opening has created a new destination on Long Island. “Told myself when I turn twenty-one, this summer I was gonna go to Patchogue every chance I got,” a woman writes. “Purgatory is being in Patchogue, in between drunk and sober with no timeline as to when you'll be home,” writes a man. After all the growth that Pontieri’s policies have spurred, there’s now a focus on maintenance. “We’re beginning now to transition from a growth perspective,” he says. “Now we have to begin with the unintended consequences of the things you do.” That includes lack of parking, consistent public drunkenness, a new homeless population, and opiate addiction in a county that’s been one of the hardest hit by overdose deaths in New York State. There might be more truth to Ojito’s assertion than I want to admit, that out there, we are far enough from the city to be considered another country. Patchogue has focused on beer, on its summer festival Alive After Five, when Main Street shuts down on select Thursdays for a massive block party. But when, amid all the fun, does the drug use, the boredom, the homelessness get addressed? *  Despite or maybe because of the area’s newfound success, the town seems inclined to think of Lucero’s murder as just a sad moment in its history. It hosted Trump in 2016 as he ran for election to the nation’s highest office on a platform of anti-Mexican rhetoric, his desire to “build a wall.” Media coverage of the Lucero murder had long since quieted, but this got The New Yorker’s attention. They gave their story a blunt title, the now-president’s name metonymy for hate and our town a symbol of anti-immigrant violence: “Donald Trump in Patchogue.” “The chickens came home to roost when Donald Trump was coming to speak at the Emporium, which is about one thousand feet from the site of the murder of Marcelo Lucero,” Reverend Wolter says.  Wolter and other townspeople put up a fight, but Trump spoke anyway, and Wolter went to see the crowd there to hear him. “They were young—not all young, but younger than I thought—they were good-looking, they were prosperous, and they were pissed. Pissed,” he says. “I took out my phone and videotaped because the power was immense.”   At a different venue in town that day, Lucero’s brother Joselo was hosting a party called “Make America Love Again.” Wolter went there afterwards to find a small, quiet gathering of folks with “one fifth” the energy of the Trump rally. He worried then about how the election would turn out, having seen the stark contrast of both sides in one night within one mile of each other. If love doesn’t counter hate, what does? There will soon be two memorials to 9/11 in the village, but no permanent marker of the place where Lucero bled to death. “It’s easier to memorialize foreigners attacking our soil than when our children murdered someone,” a friend who grew up nearby says when I pass on this information over a drink. To mark the ten-year anniversary, there will be a memorial featuring Joselo, who’s become an activist. It will take place at Stony Brook University, twelve miles away from Patchogue’s center. * Angel Zahcay owns Express Amazonas, a small shop that handles shipping between Gualaceo and Patchogue, and sells various Ecuadorian candies and sodas. When I’ve stopped in lately to try to talk to him, he’s sweetly blown me off, and I thought he was trying to avoid me completely. Many others in town have. “I’m busy,” he told me, when I showed up with a reporter’s notebook. “It’s very hot.” That was true. Finally, though, he gives me a few minutes of his time, with someone in the background quietly translating many of my questions into Spanish; they sound like a child. Zahcay has lived in the town for almost thirty years now. He says many people have moved back to Ecuador. “When they killed him, our whole life changed.” They stopped playing volleyball and drinking beers. “That wasn’t an accident,” he says of Lucero’s death. What is it like now? “In the nighttime, it’s very busy here. Two weeks ago, a friend of mine comes to my place. He was working in the restaurant and walking through Main Street, and a couple of people stole his money and his phone. They kicked him.” No one walks in Patchogue. That remains the same. Bad things happen to those who stand out.
Psychopaths and the Rest of Us

Searching for empathy with those society deems unforgivable.

I lurked on the psychopath forum for three days before contacting anyone. It is, unsurprisingly, a scary place. People have usernames like CoiledSnake and PowerShark. The forum was hosted by a now-defunct social networking site called Experience Project which allowed people to communicate anonymously through forums or private messages on everything from divorce and depression to, in this case, psychopathy. Someone would post an “experience” in the relevant forum and members would comment underneath. One day, someone posted in one of the psychopath forums, “Who wants to play a game?” Someone else responded, “I do.” They private messaged each other and were never heard from again. Other people messaged back on the main thread: “So, what happened?” No response. Another day, a man posted a message that it was his dream to gut a woman with a fish hook while having sex. Someone naively replied, “Who would agree to that?” The response: “She wouldn’t have to agree.” Fish hooks and gutting women are probably what one expects from a psychopath. The television and movie industries have long promoted the idea that all psychopaths are blood-thirsty killers, but as Dr. Kent Kiehl, a leading psychopath researcher, told me, the Hollywood version of psychopathy bears little resemblance to reality. The DSM (the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defines psychopathy as a personality disorder characterized by a total lack of remorse and empathy. Robert Hare, one of the most famous psychopath researchers and Kiehl’s mentor, describes them as people “without conscience” and developed a diagnostic tool, the Psychopathy Checklist, known as the PCL-R. An average American non-psychopathic male might score a four on the PCL-R, whereas someone scoring between thirty-seven and forty is considered an extreme case. Scientists are generally in agreement that there is no cure for psychopathy and that the condition is congenital. Other traits they’ve identified include “grandiose sense of self- worth,” “pathological lying,” “parasitic lifestyle” (think: someone who always takes money but never pays it back), “impulsivity,” “proneness to boredom” and “early behavioral problems.” Psychopaths can be very charming. They hide their psychopathy by studying people’s behaviors and learning to emulate them. Therapy appears to be ineffective because it teaches them to better conceal socially unacceptable behaviors. They are dangerous. The commonly accepted estimate is that just under one percent of the population is psychopathic. This means you probably know at least one. Robert Hare wrote in his book Without Conscience, “the best strategy [for protecting yourself] is to avoid becoming entangled with a psychopath in the first place.” *** At the beginning of Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick’s book about the fall of the Soviet Union, Remnick decides he wants to pay a visit to Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich, the man who “annihilated the peasantry and left the villages of Ukraine strewn with an endless field of human husks.” What did Remnick want from Kaganovich? “Mostly, I wanted just to sit in the same room with Kaganovich, to see what an evil man looked like, to know what he did, what books he kept around.” The question of what a mass murderer reads is a question of relatability, what part of you is like some part of me? The answer is complicated. In 2012, Dr. Kiehl made a startling discovery: people who scored high on the Psychopathy Checklist have reduced levels of gray matter in the paralimbic system of their brains, making their brains fundamentally different than the average person’s. “It’s very easy for me to pick out someone who scores in that clinical range,” Kiehl told me. “The eyes are very different, they have a very flat—I don’t like to say it, but—they almost have a reptilian effect to their eyes.” In one passage of his book, Hare calls them “human predators.” But to a non-scientific eye, all that separates us is something that could seem almost insubstantial. A little gray matter, like dust under the bed. And yet, many have declared psychopaths unworthy of explanation or probing. There is no higher truth to be gained—they just are this way. But what if this failure to understand comes from a failure to ask the right questions, a lack of imagination, or even a lack of empathy? In Hare’s famous book, Without Conscience, he writes: “A good psychopath can play a concerto on anyone’s heartstrings … Psychopaths often give the impression that it is they who are suffering … Don’t waste your sympathy on them.” He is adamant: “their problems are not in the same league as yours. Theirs stem primarily from not getting what they want.” The only safe course of action is avoidance. Detect the signs early, look for vagueness about family, friends, and employment, and get out while you can. There is no reforming. They are, Hare says, “human predators.” But that perspective seemed lacking in empathy. Psychopathy is, after all, considered a congenital mental health problem. “Their brains are different,” Kiehl told me, “the neuroscience confirms it.” Being a psychopath is not a choice, and I couldn’t imagine reacting with that much callousness to someone with a different congenital mental health problem like, for example, schizophrenia. It seemed the ultimate test of empathy—to inhabit the perspective of a supposedly unimaginable consciousness, one plagued by the darkest impulses, and to try to see the world through their eyes.  Empathizing with the grotesquely blameworthy—rapists, murderers of children—is challenging.  But the uncomfortable truth is that most of us fall somewhere between murderer and innocent child. In considering the two ends of the spectrum, I realized that this was not an investigation of psychopathy, but the negative space around psychopathy: the rest of us. *** I selected four self-proclaimed psychopaths to message on the forum based on the fact that they had said something interesting in one of the chatrooms. Three of the four responded. All of the people I spoke to described suffering from extreme boredom and told me that most of the things they did were attempts to alleviate boredom’s dull ache. One told me he thought psychopaths are the next stage in human development—people liberated from the burden of feeling. One of them was a woman, and she interested me above all the others. When I pictured the people I was chatting with, I saw Christian Bale, in American Psycho, wearing a tuxedo in a sleek, impersonal penthouse—not a woman. This woman was a suburban stay-at-home mother with three kids. She had taken great care to decorate her home with earth tones and dark wood because she wanted it to be “castle-like.” She told me she spends most of her days alone, trying to stimulate herself emotionally by finding men in internet chat rooms, saying alluring things to them, then verbally abusing them once they grew attached to her. “The hunt and seduction makes us FEEL excitement,” she told me. “Like a drug. The feeling soon wears off and we leave to find another fix. It has nothing to do with the targets, personally. They are just a tool. I can’t help it. But nothing is more victorious than having someone obsess over my absence.”  Her mother and grandmother were the same, she said. Family outings are excruciatingly boring to her, as are most things. She feels only “a void. The only pain I feel is when something is taken from me. Everything else is a flatline.” This woman, like everyone I spoke to on the forum, was a self-professed psychopath. This self-diagnosis meant that their beliefs about their mental health are not professional opinions. I called Kiehl on the phone one morning and told him about the forum. He didn’t think my psychopaths were necessarily psychopaths, especially not the woman, since psychopathy in women is extremely rare. These people could be imposters and the internet was a very impersonal way to communicate with them. I wanted to talk to someone who had been diagnosed by a doctor. I asked Dr. Kiehl for a recommendation. He suggested I get in touch with a man I will call Arnold. Arnold is a serial killer and a rapist, serving a life sentence for raping twelve women and raping and murdering another three. Two of his rape/murder victims were under ten years old. He had kidnapped one of the children while she was alone, home sick from school, after spotting her in her living room window. Several years ago, Dr. Kiehl testified in Arnold’s defense. Kiehl had found abnormally low gray matter in f-MRI scans of Arnold’s brain. He was on the extreme end of the psychopathy spectrum, scoring thirty-seven out of forty on the checklist. Kiehl argued that Arnold could not control his psychopathic impulses and that for this reason, he should not be given the death penalty. The jury was unmoved by Kiehl’s arguments, but the issue became a moot point when the state where Arnold was tried abolished the death penalty several years later. Ultimately, Kiehl’s defense of Arnold doesn’t really seem about Arnold at all, but is instead a challenge to the premise of the criminal justice system: what factors, biological and circumstantial, make certain behaviors beyond our control, and if they are beyond our control, should we be held accountable? I looked up Arnold’s information in the Department of Corrections inmate register. An image popped up—an aging man with slicked back gray hair and a Cheshire cat-like smirk. I wrote him a letter. Two weeks later, I got a response. It was just before the 2016 presidential election. “I hope like Hell Clinton wins. Women need empowerment,” he wrote. He proceeded on a tirade about income inequality, justice, and sexism. He told me he is an avid listener of Democracy Now, a progressive news program with a focus on human rights. “I don’t blame the voters for Trump. I blame the Democratic Party’s focus on coronating Clinton,” Arnold went on. He ended another letter, “Please send me the address for the national headquarters for the Democratic National Committee in Washington. I have a few suggestions for them.” I knew—more strikingly, he knew—that he did not care about the lived experience of income or gender inequity, or any of the things he had elected to champion. I imagine his interest in politics is much like the interest one might have in a Rubik’s cube. He is tinkering with a meaningless logic problem. “Science and reason drive my beliefs,” Arnold wrote. His most cherished books are a pocket Oxford American and Roget’s 21st Century thesaurus, the second edition. When he is in his cell, he works on legal briefs (he has three lawsuits against the Department of Corrections), studies theoretical physics, and does Sudoku puzzles (“hard and challenger”). Arnold told me that when he feels disappointed about the way his life turned out, he takes comfort in the story of Dr. James Fallon. Fallon is a neuroscientist. In 2006, he was working on a study of Alzheimer’s patients and used a scan of his own brain in the control group. When he was going through the scans, he noticed that one of the scans looked similar to a psychopath’s brain. It turned out to be his own. Fallon is a rare breed: a successful psychopath. He attributes this success and his impulse control to the fact that he was loved and supported as a child. Arnold claims his childhood wasn’t like that, saying of his family, “my experiences were more negative than positive.” When it comes to one’s own family, there are no reliable narrators. But what is known from trial records and Dr. Kiehl’s analysis is that Arnold’s father was an alcoholic. His mother, a slightly more functional alcoholic, abused him physically and emotionally. A chronic bed wetter, his mother forced him to sleep in his soiled sheets as punishment.  Early in his life, he may have sustained two brain injuries, which could relate to his later problems. Both accounts are unverifiable—the hospital records no longer exist. The first comes from Arnold’s sister. When his mother was pregnant with him she went into labor before a doctor was available. The nurse pushed his emerging head back into his mother and strapped her legs together, in theory damaging his brain. Arnold told me the other story, saying that his mother had told him: When he was an infant, a cat sat on his face, smothering him. When his mother found him, he was unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital and was fine, but he wondered if the lack of oxygen to his brain caused damage. Arnold argues that, had he grown up in a loving and supportive home, he may have been able to overcome whatever was wrong with his brain. “I could have been a productive member of society,” he wrote. “How do I know? I don’t. But it’s what I believe.” It is what Arnold wants to believe, and it was also what he wants journalists to believe. He could have been a good person. Arnold spends twenty-four hours a day locked in his cell except for Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays when he spends two and a half hours in a concrete enclosure playing basketball or “pushing iron with a few convicts.” He gets three fifteen-minute showers a week. In one of my letters, I suggested “scheduling a call.” He patiently explained to me that, “due to the vagaries of prison life—lockdowns, emergencies… etc. I might not be able to always meet a schedule.” It was cruel to remind him of his lack of freedom, especially since he had written of it to me so longingly. “If I were free, I’d love to be on a sparsely populated island in the Pacific” or “a farm with a stream running through it or with a pond/lake next to it.” I was, in spite of myself, beginning to feel a little bad for Arnold. Arnold told me a story about something that happened twenty years ago. He was in his cell watching another inmate deceive a man in the cell next to him. The “gallery troll,” as he called the man, disgusted him. But then—recognition: he was no different than this man. He was a gallery troll too. “What a low life piece of shit I turned out to be,” he said he thought. He was so stricken by this realization that his knees buckled and he had to grab onto the bars of his cell to keep himself upright.  Kiehl and Hare’s analysis often gave the impression that psychopaths were inhuman, alien, other. But that moment in Arnold’s cell was so human. If I believed his story, he was saying he wanted to be a better version of himself, to have a life that was a better version of his. Presumably his victims felt similarly about their lives, which is what makes their murder tragic. They had believed that if they went to school, worked hard at their jobs, cared for their friends and family and found ways to improve their less appealing traits, their lives should only get better and better. Arnold killed them before they had a real chance. ***  I arranged for a phone call with Arnold. He explained that when he called, there would be an automated voice asking if I would accept charges from “Cheeseburger.” Cheeseburger, he explained, was his prison name. One Sunday afternoon, a few weeks later, my phone rang. It was Cheeseburger.  His voice surprised me. I had expected it to be flat, but he was gregarious, even funny, and disarmingly frank. “I have to intellectualize the things that you guys feel,” he said. He comfortably referred to himself as a psychopath and seemed relieved to have the moniker. “I always wondered why I didn’t connect,” he said. In that phone conversation, he told me a story about how many years ago, before he was in prison, his father died. His siblings were gathered around their mother crying in the hospital. He sat on the couch across from them, watching them. He felt nothing, but had the sense that this was the wrong response. “I was looking at them wondering what was wrong with me.” Now he had his answer.  When I asked him if he thought he was capable of love, he said no, probably not. He said he has enjoyed the presence of other people before, but mostly it was because they were able to talk about the topics that interest him: law, politics, or science. He told me he spends a lot of time meditating or training himself to consider the implications of his actions and he thinks this “makes me a little more human I think than I used to be.” It was hard not to be seduced by his pageantry of introspection and proclaimed self-improvement schemes. But his suggestion that he is different now should be regarded dubiously, if you believe most contemporary scientific research. As Kiehl told me many times, there is no cure for psychopathy. “You can't TALK people INTO feeling and/or understanding what love is,” one self-proclaimed psychopath told me on the forum. But, while he couldn’t make himself feel, it seemed possible that he could train himself to behave as a feeling person would. When I called Kiehl on the phone, I had asked him if he ever felt sorry for the psychopaths he encountered. He paused, considering my question. “Yes,” he said finally. “I’m not a bleeding heart, but I do feel they are really missing something that the rest of us take for granted. The pure enjoyment that I get from listening to my daughter’s voice: it sets off something in my brain. It’s unbelievable. Psychopaths don’t get that.” I asked Arnold if it felt good to kill people. “No,” he said quickly. He explained that he wanted to rape people. He speculated that he was drawn to rape because he was young when he committed his crimes and feeling a lot of sexual desire, but since he exists in an “emotionless landscape” his sexual impulses manifested violently. He only killed his victims, he told me, so they wouldn’t be able to identify him later. After he said this, he let out a strange groan. I don’t know what it meant.  *** Arnold’s crimes were all disturbing, but there was a more mundane scene from his life that nagged at me. The sister of one of Arnold’s victims had requested to meet him in 1985. I looked up the details of the murder. Arnold had noticed his victim at a stoplight, rammed her car off the road, raped her, and then drowned her in a quarry. Why had her sister wanted to talk to Arnold after that? Perhaps she wanted relief from the unknowns, to understand how much her sister had suffered. Without specifics, all grisliness is possible. All manner of screaming, of crying, pleading, the wildest look of animal terror could have happened. Good horror film directors know this: don’t show the monster because the ever-mutating images in our minds are worse than any one thing you could show us. Perhaps the sister was asking to be released from her imagination. Arnold had refused. I asked him why. He said he remembered only vaguely. “I was a punk ass coward,” he added dismissively. I had the sense that there was a magic question I could ask Arnold that would unlock some barrier of understanding between us. He seemed eager to embark on this challenge too. He told me he hardly ever feels anything but that he did when one of his victim’s parents spoke at his sentencing. He said that they were in such obvious pain that when he got back to his cell, he burst into tears. I told him I thought that sounded like empathy to me, which was something I was under the impression he could not experience. He explained that he could feel sorrow and regret, but not empathy. I asked him what the difference was. He didn’t seem to know. What does sorrow feel like? I asked, realizing that I didn’t know how to describe it either. Instead of explaining the feeling, he described the process by which he brings himself to feel it. He said he has to sit down and think about something terrible, meditate on it, and imagine the ramifications.  If felt as though sorrow, to him was like a place he sometimes chooses to go—not something that happens to him. And then it dawned on me. His story didn’t add up. If he had to meditate on the ramification of his actions in order to “feel” them, then it seemed unlikely that he had burst into tears. Bursting into tears is something one does when suddenly overcome by an uncontrollable wave of emotion. I realized then that he was probably lying about his reaction to hearing his victims’ parents speak. If he had cried spontaneously, he had cried for himself because he realized that other people had been moved by the parents’ testimony and that he was royally fucked. *** When Remnick was writing about the fall of the Soviet Union, he went to the mass murderer’s apartment and knocked on his door. He went often. Some days, he could hear rustling inside. Kaganovich was right there on the other side of the door, as were his books and his entire life, waiting to be probed, if only he would let Remnick in. But no one ever answered. Remnick kept knocking. After speaking with Arnold, I realized Remnick’s knocking was hopeful. Asking why presumes there is an answer. Arnold sent me one last letter imploring me to send him books, lamenting his debt, and telling me how improved he is. Reading through the letter, I felt a spontaneous shudder. I didn’t even want to touch the paper, as though it was infected with some pathogen that might leech decency and wellbeing from my life. I folded it up and put it in a file that I keep in the back of my closet. I never responded. I never spoke to Arnold again.
My Grandmother’s Survival

Like so many German Jews, my Nana’s family was late to leave the country when Hitler came to power. They thought antisemitism was a relic of the past. 

My grandmother and I are in a small train car rattling towards the center of Brussels. It’s like something out of an Agatha Christie novel, but an unglamorous version set in the 1970s. Six booths line the walls, with an aisle just barely wide enough to pass in the middle. Everything in the car—the wallpaper, the ceiling, the worn upholstery on the seats—is yellow and brown. All but the door, which is silver, and marked with graffiti: “RIP N.” We’re leaving the Brussels airport. The people in our carriage are carrying big suitcases, appearing at once paranoid and vulnerable. Nana and I sit across the aisle from each other, too tired to talk after our twelve-hour trip from New York. The thin man facing her in the booth has a grey goatee and a downturned mouth. He seems to be ignoring us. My first grumpy European, I think. “How many stops until our station?” Nana asks me. “I don’t know,” I say. “I figure we’ll just get off when it comes.” The guy with the goatee speaks up. “He’s an easygoing fellow,” he says to my grandmother, gesturing at me. His accent is not European at all, but Midwestern. I immediately turn to inspect the graffiti on the door, then the passing cityscape of Brussels—short, tightly packed row houses with misshapen antennae on their roofs, the entire scene tinged grey by the overcast morning. Turning away is a reflex I’ve spent years honing. When I was nineteen, I chose to put up with an hour of “magic tricks” from a “magician” seated next to me on a flight to Las Vegas rather than disabuse him of the notion that I was a twelve-year-old boy. Now, when people misread me I try to avoid further contact, hoping—usually in vain—to avoid the moment when they realize their mistake and I have to coddle them through their embarrassment. “I’m so sorry, it’s just the short hair, and—” “It’s okay.” “You know, I normally wear glasses—” “It’s really okay.” I don’t think my grandmother notices the goatee man’s gender error. But she does seem to have picked up on something she doesn’t like, because she nods dismissively at him. “Are you from here?” he asks. He has heard her accent. “Yes,” she says. I watch him closely now, as though a glare from the fourteen-year-old grandson character I’m playing would intimidate a Midwestern busybody like this guy. Still. I focus on his goatee. In my head, I dare him to keep going. “So, do you think in English or in French?” he says. My grandmother shakes her head. I see him begin to repeat the question, and I can tell he thinks she hasn’t heard, or doesn’t understand. Of course, I know she understands. She’s just shaking her head because it’s a polite way to avoid a question she doesn’t like. “Do you think in English or in French?” he says again. She laughs, only enough to be polite, and says: “I don’t know. I guess it depends.” He begins to prattle on about the train, his trip, what he’s heard about each of the stations. He doesn’t know that neither English nor French was her first language. That I’m a twenty-seven-year-old queer adult, not a fourteen-year-old boy. I catch Nana staring out the window at Brussels as he talks. I wonder if she’s remembering how it looked when she left. * Ever since I was little, Nana has been my champion. When I was five years old and wanted to wear boys’ clothes, she bought me the coolest pair of BOSS black jeans that I had ever seen. When I was ten and battling the tandem loneliness of queerness and nerdiness, she whisked me off to her apartment every Wednesday afternoon. There, I made myself two-inch-thick peanut butter sandwiches and told her about the writer I wanted to be, and the world outside of her safe Brooklyn kitchen fell away. On the day I turned twenty-seven, I woke up to an email: “IT’S MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY.” The official occasion for our trip to Belgium is an art exhibit; Nana is writing a book about the art looted by the Nazis, and there’s a show in Liège she wants to see. For me, though, the exhibit is just an excuse. What I really want is to visit the place where she spent her teenage years—with her by my side. Nana wasn’t born in Belgium; she grew up in Hanover, Germany, the oldest child in a secular Jewish family. Like so many German Jews, they were late to leave the country when Hitler came to power. My great-grandfather and all of his brothers had served in World War I. They were German in every way, from the Christmas trees they decorated every December to their names, straight out of a German textbook: Otto, Ludwig, Hugo, Anton. They thought antisemitism was a relic of the past in their homeland; they thought they were safe. When they were eventually forced to flee, my grandmother, thirteen, settled in Brussels with her sister and their parents. Then the Nazis invaded Belgium. My great-grandfather was arrested and sent to a camp in southern France. They would not see him again for six years. When my great-grandmother finally got a letter ordering her and her two daughters to report to a camp, they went into hiding—separately. Nana’s story of hiding from the Nazis has always been a fact of my life; from the time I was little, I could recite it as easily as my family’s address, or my father’s middle name. Up until this point, though, the details have existed only in my imagination. The gymnasium where they took her father when he was arrested; the municipal building where she was given the yellow star to sew onto her clothes; the secret studio apartment where she visited her mother once a week—all were constructed in my mind based on a few blurry black and white photos and my best attempts at visualization. This trip would change that: it was an opportunity to walk through Brussels with my grandmother as my guide, to ride the streetcar with her along the same route she once took home. Implicit in the preciousness of this experience was a plain truth: Nana had survived. She managed to stay alive under the nose of a regime that hunted her, and on her twenty-first birthday, she sailed away across the ocean to the shores of New York City, where she built an entirely new life with a man, my grandfather, who had staged his own escape. Seventy years later, we were making that journey in reverse, returning to the place where her life had been saved. I went to Brussels because I wanted to stand with Nana on the same sidewalk from which she’d watched the defeated Nazis retreat in 1944. I wanted her to show me, with her own pointed finger, the houses where she’d hid. I wanted us to look at them together, both of us free, standing outside. * Another train, days after the first one: this one from Brussels to Bruges. My grandmother and I are seated in first class by accident. We discover this when the conductor arrives, looks at my ticket, and frowns at me. “——— ——— ———,” he declares. I don’t know what he’s saying, but I can tell he wants something from me. In my fluster, I revert to English. “I'm sorry, I don't understand…” Recognition passes across the conductor's face. Not in a nice way. He straightens his back and fixes me with an unequivocal scowl. “Ah. I see,” he says in clear, loud English. “This is a first-class carriage. You have second-class seats. Either pay, or move." "Oh, I'm so sorry—" "Pay. Or move.” I'm already gathering my notebook, my pen, the things I had spread out across the little first-class table before I realized it was a first-class table. “Well, how much is it?” my grandma asks. I turn to the conductor. He’s still scowling. “How much would it be to stay?” He bows his head, complete with ridiculous conductor cap, punches some buttons on his hand-held ticket machine and announces the price—almost thirty euros. Nana laughs. “Let’s go.” When we enter the second-class carriage, it looks identical to the first-class carriage—except it’s almost entirely full. I follow Nana as she slides into an empty seat next to a couple. I sit across from her. Our neighbors, also seated across from each other, look like they’re in their seventies. They're Flemish, a fact that is immediately apparent to me even though I can't figure out why. The woman is wearing a raincoat in a safe shade of pink; the man, a driving cap, with an umbrella across his lap. They don't say a word to each other, but the way their faces flatten and the woman leans ever so slightly away from my grandmother make it very clear: they’re not happy to have company. I shrink into my seat, stare at the farmland rushing by, try to send reassurances to the couple that I will sit in quiet contemplation for the rest of the trip. My grandmother chats to me about poplar trees (they’re very rare in America), what we’ll eat for lunch (mussels might be nice), that funny conductor (thirty euros!). I respond only minimally, but then feel guilty—caught between the desire to be a good grandchild and the desire to escape the obvious disdain of the Flemish couple. There is no shortage of irony here. My grandmother and I have both been punished for difference in our lives. She is skilled at blending in, at adapting to her environment. She’s critical of America but she sees herself unequivocally as an American. And though she recognizes the challenges of assimilation, she is ultimately a proponent of it as a necessary strategy for survival. I’m not. I don’t believe in the mandate of assimilation—in fact, I have a strong aversion to it. Most of my politics are built around this idea: that people shouldn’t have to compromise their identities in order to demand respect, agency, access. I can wax political for days about the dangers of asking people to erase themselves. But on the train, when a buttoned-up Flemish couple can’t hide their offense at our presence, I want to disappear. And when I’m feeling embarrassed for daring to take up an unoccupied seat, when I want to be silent, when I want to be less visible, it is my grandmother who chooses to be unapologetic; to feel no shame; to sit comfortably and take up no more than the width of her seat, but no less, either. It is always this way. For all of my radical politics, I am the one who is much more concerned about what people think. I admire Nana. She has grit. I begin to chat with her in my full indoor voice, and at length. I see the Flemish woman in the pink raincoat squirming. When she and her husband stand and depart the train at Ghent, my grandmother leans across to me. “Well, they weren’t very happy, were they?” I laugh and shake my head. They probably heard her. But who cares. * On our last night in Brussels, we go to Yume. Yume is a restaurant on the moneyed Avenue de Tervuren, Brussels’ equivalent of Park Avenue. Built in 1938, it was originally a house—an enormous, Bauhaus-style villa inhabited by a wealthy Belgian family named Grosfils. One day in 1944, seeking shelter from the Nazis occupying Belgium, my seventeen-year-old grandmother had come to work for the Grosfils as a nanny. Her oldest charge had been a little boy, Jean-Pierre. It is Jean-Pierre, now in his seventies, who drives us to Yume. He helps my grandmother out of his Mercedes and offers her his arm as we approach the restaurant. It is impossibly huge, a white modern behemoth rising at the corner of the block with smooth lines, wide curves, and endless terraces. The staff at Yume seems simultaneously unsurprised and delighted when my grandmother tells them that she was hidden in this house seventy years ago. They encourage us to walk around the whole restaurant—“even the kitchen, wherever you like,” the maitre d’ urges—and to take our time. The second floor of the restaurant is occupied by a dimly lit dining room, its walls lined from end to end with windows. Nana leads the way across the room and, pointing, draws an invisible rectangle on a portion of the floor. “This was my room. I shared it with one of the children,” she says. “And—this was my window!” I step next to her and find myself staring out at the enormous Parc de Woluwe. It’s an elegant mass of trees and lawns, almost entirely doused in darkness except for the glowing streetlamps. I try to commit the sight to memory. I’m twenty-seven years old, standing next to my eighty-nine-year-old grandmother, and looking out at the same park that she saw every night in 1944. “I used to go across the street sometimes after the kids were asleep and ride my bike in the park,” she says. “It was wonderful.” Just before they went into hiding, Nana’s mother spanked her for the last time. She had lost her false papers: the ones that identified her as a non-Jew, the ones that she was supposed to carry around at all times in case an S.S. officer boarded the streetcar and inspected everyone’s identification. At seventeen, she was too big to be laid across a knee, so her mother bent her over the umbrella stand and spanked her while her sister watched, laughing at the absurdity of the scene. Nana had to have known she was in danger. Was that what she thought about as she looked out this window? Did she think about every birthday party that had been taken from her; about her father, who she hadn’t seen in years? Or did she simply count the streetlamps, trace the paths with her eyes, watch for two lovers in the shadow of a tree, plan her next bike ride? Months later, I will ask her if she was scared. “No,” she’ll tell me. “You can’t be scared for four years.” For now, though, I am standing in front of the big window with Nana, staring out at the park. I reach out to touch her arm. We are both, I am sure, looking at those paths, imagining my seventeen-year-old grandmother riding in big, swooping figure-eights along the perfectly smooth pavement. Alone, outside, unafraid.