“Netherland” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 12)

When I read through the latest issue of The New Yorker, I thought that I might write-up my take on two other longform pieces in the magazine, the profile of Alabama radio host Paul Finebaum or Ken Auletta’s feature on Elisabeth Murdoch. But the story that grabbed me instantly and haunted me after I put it down was Rachel Aviv’s feature on homeless gay, lesbian, and transgender youth in New York City, “Netherland.”

Christopher Street Pier

Photo by Alice Proujansky

The article introduces the reader to this world mostly through the eyes of one young gay woman, “Samantha,” and her experiences on the streets. “Netherland” begins with Samantha’s decision to leave home in Florida and run away to New York. Before she leaves, we learn a lot about her. We learn that she was a straight-A student; she loved to write; she began to realize she was a lesbian when she found herself lusting for Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider; she was molested by a family friend; when she told her parents about the abuse, her mother suggested it was a hallucination.

We also see that, for someone planning to live on the streets in Manhattan, she was quite Type A about her preparations:

In a purple spiral-bound notebook, she created a guide for life on the streets. She listed the locations of soup kitchens, public libraries, bottle-return vending machines, thrift stores, and public sports clubs, where she could slip in for free showers. Under the heading “known homeless encampments,” she wrote down all the parks, boardwalks, and tunnels where she could sleep and the subway line she’d take to get there. Her most detailed entry was a description of an abandoned trai tunnel in Harlem and the name of a photographer who had taken pictures of the homeless people who lived in it. She hoped that if she mentioned the photographer’s name she would be “accepted by the underground society.”

As she sets off to New York, Aviv doesn’t tell Samantha’s story in a manipulative or sentimental way. The story is written in a matter-of-fact and straightforward manner, blending Samantha’s stories with observations and facts about homeless LGBT youth in New York City. It is very revealing and personal, but Aviv doesn’t go for the heartstrings; she reports the story with an even, almost cold detachment. She reports the truth that she finds as she follows Samantha as she moves in and out of homeless LGBT circles.

The reader gets an inside look at homelessness in New York, but also the experience of being gay, young, and homeless. Not surprisingly, Samantha’s life on the streets isn’t as easy as she expects, and she struggles to find food, shelter, and friends she can trust. She finds “family,” but it’s unclear if she can rely on them any more than she relied the family she left behind in Florida. Samantha becomes hardened and savvy to the streets.

In one section, Aviv shares some of the methods Samantha refines for getting the best results when panhandling:

Her favorite place to panhandle was a leafy block of Hudson Street near the Chambers Street subway station, where thousands of professionals converged during rush hour. Samantha noticed that when she looked “stereotypically movie homeless,” wearing ripped sweatpants and a baggy, dirty sweater, she could bring in nearly twice as much as when she wore her usual clothes. Christina helped her come up with a convincing hairdo: two braids, smothered with Vaseline. “I wanted to look as small as possible, like vulnerable,” Samantha said. She sat on a milk crate with her knees drawn to her chest, her arm draped over a pink backpack; she was convinced that the color made her seem more sympathetic.

This isn’t a policy story: it doesn’t suggest any solutions to the growing problem of LGBT homelessness. And it doesn’t offer ideas for how to prevent more girls like Samantha from running away to live a risky, dangerous life on the streets. But it is powerful in revealing a world that few of us know about or understand.

I would love to know how Aviv reported this story: did she spend weeks with Samantha? Days? How much did she see first hand? How much did leave out of the story?

Aviv seems nonjudgmental and detached as she reports on the various subcultures and groups that Samantha encounters. She doesn’t press an ideological or political angle with the story, aside from a general awareness that for thousands of homeless LGBT youth in New York City and countless other American cities, options are few and hope is in very short supply.

The end of this story is ambiguous. In the closing scenes, we see warmth and friendship between Samantha and some old friends. There is reason for optimism about Samantha’s future, but also, a looming sense that it could all crumble away overnight.

One reason this is a great story is that I keep thinking about it; about Samantha and the various friends she meets along the way. A few months or years from now, I’ll probably wonder what happened to her and where she wound up. Aviv’s narrative ends in the middle of Samantha’s story, and the reader is left only to imagine what happens next.

Read Netherland →

[Note: the link to this story goes, unfortunately, to clunky, nightmarish-to-read, paywalled New Yorker site. So if you’re not a subscriber, hopefully you can grab a copy of the December 10 edition of the magazine and check it out. Otherwise, wait a few months from now and it should b available in full text online to nonsubscribers.]

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