“The Loved Ones” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 31)

The best narrative nonfiction tells true stories with the crafts and elements of a short story, and that’s exactly what Tom Junod delivers in “The Loved Ones,” published in the September 2006 issue of Esquire.

It looks at the tragedy at St. Rita’s nursing home in New Orleans, where 35 residents died in the floods of Hurricane Katrina, and the charges of negligent homicide filed against the its owners, Sal and Mabel Mangano. It is a story rich with conflict, complex characters, and broader themes and ideas. It asks more than who was to blame; it considers the role we give to those who care for our elderly, the power and impact of mass media to distory the truth, and the cultural need for blame.

Abandoned wheelchairs and a flooded hallway at St. Rita's Nursing Home

Photo: The New York Times

Junod takes the time to make the people in the story vivid and real. Case in point: the Mangano’s if-he-wasn’t-real-you’d-think-Hollywood-invented-him defense lawyer, Jim Cobb. Here, he talks about one of the witness some think will send the Manganos to jail:

“Did you see Bertucci’s testimony?” he’s saying as he’s driving. “Was it good for my case? Fuuuuuuuck. It was awesome for my case. It was so good, I’m considering jerking off while reading it.” For one of the civil lawsuits against the Manganos, Cobb has just taken the deposition of Dr. Bryan Bertucci, the elected coroner of St. Bernard Parish and the man Cobb regards as the state’s star witness in its case against the Manganos. It was Bertucci, you see, who offered St. Rita’s two school buses for use in an evacuation, and Bertucci who told the world of the nursing home’s disastrous reply: No. “The state is trying to prove that Sal and Mabel were negligent,” Cobb says. “That means willful, wanton, reckless disregard. So I ask him, ‘Have you ever witnessed them treat their patients in a careless manner?’ ‘No.’ ‘In a negligent manner?’ ‘No.’ ‘In a reckless manner?’ ‘No.’ I mean, I’m practically reading from the statute, man. But wait, it gets better. He says, ‘No, as a matter of fact, in my opinion they ran the best nursing home in the parish.’ All right? This is their freaking witness.”

Later, we see Cobb in his own home, also mostly destroyed by Katrina. Junod does a fine job describing the scene. As Cobb surveys the destruction, he rages against the district attorney for prosecuting the Manganos:

There’s a lot of mold in Lakeview, indeed a lot of mold in Jim Cobb’s house, scavenging black mold with the characteristics of fire, stoked in the foul remnants of flood. Floodwater still fills his pool, still fills his crawfish pots and his turkey fryer, and he’s uncharacteristically quiet while he’s in his house, until he goes outside and starts walking toward the lake, where the vista opens to the wartime view: the black helicopters hovering static over what passes for a levee, the X’s spray-painted hastily on the doors of the houses, the occasional 1 or 2 mixed in with the zeros, noting how many bodies were found inside.

“You know who died in these houses?” Cobb says. “Old people. The storm wasn’t a black thing or a white thing; it was an old thing. Sixty-five percent of those who died were over sixty-five. Forty percent were over seventy-five. It was a complete fucking catastrophe for old people. And what does the attorney general do about it? Who are the people he arrests? Two senior citizens, Sal and Mabel Mangano. He arrests them for neglect while Michael Brown and Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco and Michael Chertoff and George W. Bush get a pass? No fucking way, man. They’ll have to kill me first.”

This is a story overflowing with anger. Anger from Cobb. Anger from the children of victims who drowned in St. Rita’s. Anger from talking heads on 24/7 news channels. Anger from the Manganos’ son, “Little Sal,” who rails against the lies repeated against his parents.

Junod paints a very sympathetic picture of the Manganos, detailing their attentive care of their residents, the extra efforts they made to care for those who didn’t have close family or relatives. He doesn’t excuse their decision not to evacuate the nursing home before Katrina hit, but he tries to understand why they decided to stay.

He recounts the harrowing and frantic events of the hours that water began to flood the home, and the Manganos’ desperate efforts to rescue their residents.

But he also paints a gruesome other side of the story, the perspective of Steve Gallodoro, who tried to return St Rita’s after the flood to rescue his father, and what he saw:

“I swam into the water,” Steve Gallodoro says. “I couldn’t open the glass door, so I had them bring me to the patio area. I climbed up on the patio; it had three feet of water, one of them glass doors was broken, and as I was walking to the door, I came across a body. I moved the body around to see sort of who it was, and it was an elderly female. I walked into a doorway, and as soon as I stepped in the doorway, there was another body floating. It was another female. I was in the TV room of the lobby in the north wing, and I came across another body about ten feet later, another elderly female. There was four feet of water or so, beds floating, furniture floating. It would have been impossible for me to walk any farther down the hallways. I hollered, ‘Fire Department, is anybody here, does anybody need help?’ and it just echoed.”

“The Loved Ones” offer no black and white answers, no easy-to-spot heroes or villains. It is a thoughtful, beautifully written look the moral complexity of a tragedy that was played for cheap melodrama on cable television. It underscores the depth and scope of loss in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Almost everyone in the story lost something in the water.

Junod seems to ask if there’s much more that can be taken from the Manganos that Katrina didn’t already wash away.

Read “The Loved Ones” →

“Todd Marinovich: The Man Who Never Was” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Nine)

Mike Sager’s 9800-word profile of Todd Marinovich for the May 2009 edition of Esquire is an impressive work. It details the rise and fall of Marinovich from prep star, to USC standout, to NFL washout, to drug addict and convict. The quarterback’s story has so many plot twists, so many highs and lows, it almost seems too melodramatic to be true.

Todd Marinovich

Photo: Getty Images

Sager doesn’t hide where the story is going. By the sixth paragraph, he shares the stats of Marinovich’s fall: “nine arrests, five felonies, a year in jail.” The story isn’t about surprise; it’s about the question many of us who watched his career have wondered: “what the hell happened to that guy?”

He starts out by showing us where Marinovich came from, his family influences, and the pressure that his infamous father put on him since birth:

With the birth of his own two children, Traci and Todd, came the perfect opportunity for Marv to put his ideas into practice. “Some guys think the most important thing in life is their jobs, the stock market, whatever,” he says. “To me, it was my kids. The question I asked myself was, How well could a kid develop if you provided him with the perfect environment?
For the nine months prior to Todd’s birth on July 4, 1969, Trudi used no salt, sugar, alcohol, or tobacco. As a baby, Todd was fed only fresh vegetables, fruits, and raw milk; when he was teething, he was given frozen kidneys to gnaw. As a child, he was allowed no junk food; Trudi sent Todd off to birthday parties with carrot sticks and carob muffins. By age three, Marv had the boy throwing with both hands, kicking with both feet, doing sit-ups and pull-ups, and lifting light hand weights. On his fourth birthday, Todd ran four miles along the ocean’s edge in thirty-two minutes, an eight-minute-mile pace. Marv was with him every step of the way.

With this, we get a better sense of how Marinovich became known as the “Robo-Quarterback,” the child born, raised, and, some say, engineered, to be an elite professional athlete. We also see, very early on, that all that pressure had a price.

One effective technique Sager uses is to present a story or a scene, framed in the larger context of what we know is part of the larger story about the man, such as this story about one of his high school games. Sager takes Marinovich’s memory by ties it to elements of the story that are yet to come:

Todd fought for breath. His head was ringing, his vision was blurred, he wanted to puke. Later he would recognize the symptoms of his first concussion. Marv’s conditioning was designed to train the body and the mind to push beyond pain and fear. Throughout his career, Todd would be known for his extraordinary focus and will — qualities that would both enable and doom him. Two years from now, the left-hander would lead a fourth-quarter rally with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. Five years from now, he would throw four college touchdowns with a fractured left wrist. Sixteen years from now, he’d throw ten touchdowns in one game, tying an Arena Football League record, while suffering from acute heroin withdrawal.

This is very effective. He breaks up the mostly conventional chronolical narrative with connections like this that underscore for the reader how Marinovich’s childhood and formative experiences would shape him later in life.

Sager also makes subtle, telling observations as he talks with Marinovich. Not long after detailing the rigid diet and nutritional regiment Todd’s father imposed on him since birth, we get a little scene like this from a a pop warner game that provides contrast:

He’d just cleared the line of scrimmage when Goliath-boy stepped into the gap and delivered a forearm shiver very much like the one that had gotten Marv ejected from the Rose Bowl. Todd crumpled to the ground. Blood flowed copiously from his nose.

The whistle blew. As Todd was being cleaned up, Marv convinced the coach that Todd needed to go back in the game. Immediately. At quarterback.

Todd stood over center, his nose still bleeding. Part of him felt like crying. The other part knew that it was the last few seconds of the scrimmage and the team was down by only a few points. For as long as he could remember, no matter what sport he played, he always had to win.

He took the snap and faded back, threw a perfect pass into the back corner of the end zone. “That has always been my favorite route,” he says now, sitting outside a little coffee shop on Balboa Boulevard, drinking a large drip with six sugars and smoking a Marlboro Red. He tells the story from a place of remove, as if describing something intimate that happened to someone else. “I remember seeing the ball. It was spiraling and there was blood just flying off of it, splattering out into the air.”

When the catch was made, there was silence for a beat. “And then I remember the parents cheering.”

So much is packed into that anecdote aside from what happened on the scoreboard. We see the overbearing nature of his father. We see the vulnerable, scared kid inside Todd; but also the fiery competitor. He remembers the parents cheering, but not, it seems, his own happiness. But the most telling detail is that as Marinovich tells this story, he’s smoking and drinking a coffee with six sugars; a stark contrast from the boy described a page earlier as being sent to birthday parties with carrot sticks and carob muffins.

More than anything else, what strikes me about this piece is its scope. This is clearly not a profile put together after a few hours at a table with Marinovich. It’s evident that he spent a lot of time with the quarterback, asking countless questions and pressing him for what he thought and felt at a given time. The end product is dense and loaded with not only what happened to Marinovich, but what he was thinking at every step of the way.

Read “Todd Marinovich: The Man Who Never Was” →

“How to Build An American Car” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day One)

Buried near the back of the October 2012 issue of Esquire, parked behind articles about Clint Eastwood, Mitt Romney, and vodka, is “How to Build An American Car,” a beautiful look at the people behind a new model of Cadillac.

A story like this could be dull and tedious. Manufacturing is not usually a sexy, interesting topic. And a story about a new automobile sounds like something you’d read only if you were trapped in a dental office with no other option. But this is a brilliant work of research and writing by author Justin Heckert.

The story of the Cadillac ATS is really the stories of all the people who created it. It’s about people like Taki Karras, the designer who created the look of the car; Rick Kewley, the man who tests the steering wheel; Matt Highstrom and Cody Hansen who developed the on-screen interface, Ray Kiefer who designed the seat, Michele Killen who developed and picked the colors of the paint, and Stacey Silver, who installs parts of the taillights on the assembly line.

Nine photos of workers who created the car

Photo by Andrew Tingle

What makes Heckert’s story so effective is all the rich background and anecdotes we get on the people featured in the story. It’s a dozen personal profiles packed into a single story. Short-form and long-form collide.

For example, when he writes about Rick Kewley, the steering wheel expert, he describes Kewley’s hands, and how they compared to the hands of his father, also an autoworker:

Outstretched, the end of Rick Kewley’s pinkie to the tip of his thumb measures ten inches. He uses this measurement when he’s at Lowe’s looking for hardware, and he has been aware of that distance ever since his fingers stopped growing. He has a story about his hands. It’s short and sweet. When he was a boy, his father would place his hand and his son’s side by side, as a way to check how much the adolescent Kewley had grown. At some point a long time ago, Rick’s hands became larger than his father’s. Now Rick’s son, by the same measuring method, already has hands slightly larger than his.

When we meet Taki Karras, the designer who came up the with the shape and body for the car, we learn about his childhood in Dayton, Ohio and his early fascination with cars and design:

His father owned a grocery store in Dayton, Ohio, called Karras Market, on Wilmington Pike. There was a magazine rack at the store. Taki couldn’t reach the top row, which was stocked with auto magazines, so he used to ask people in the store for them, used to point. He would draw sketches of cars in the break room of the grocery store, Lamborghinis, Lotuses, cars people only dream of. One summer, when he was eleven, he was on a flight home from Greece with his family, and he was holding a toy Ferrari. A woman sitting next to him asked, “Do you want me to draw that for you?” She was an artist. She spent the flight staring at the toy Ferrari and working at her seat on the pull-down tray. When the flight was almost over, she handed him the finished picture as a gift.

Later, Heckert takes us on the road with the on-screen user experience designers and lets us ride along as they meet and study real-world drivers:

Cody met a man with a parrot. This was in San Francisco. The man with the parrot drove an old Infiniti. As he was driving, he turned to Cody, who was silently watching him, taking notes on a digital sketchbook. The man looked at a regular button on the side of his stick shift. He pointed to the button. “This is my Turbo button!” he said, and turned again toward the road. After their ride, Cody went into the man with the parrot’s apartment. They were sitting on a couch amid the clutter, facing each other. The man with the parrot was talking about his fiancée. How she liked to sunbathe in the nude. The parrot took a giant shit on his shoulder and he just kept talking.

Matt and Cody and the other members of the team met people who yelled at their kids. Who texted while driving. Who talked on the phone so much that members of team Journey wanted to stop taking notes and smack them. One woman asked the man next to her at a stoplight if he wanted to go on a date.

What makes this story brilliant is that it’s assembled with characters and little stories and moments like these that make it all a rich, human experience and puts faces on what would typically be an invisible, hidden process. Structurally, the story goes through the car, piece by piece, and we find out about real people who have some role in those parts. In the end, when Heckert describes the first-ever model of the Cadillac ATS coming off the assembly line and driving off into the world, the reader that every new car has hundeds of human stories behind it.

Read “How to Build An American Car” →

Dan Baum and the half-empty glass

Dan Baum, a writer who’s worked for Esquire and The New Yorker, talked with the Renegade Writer blog about freelancing and the future of the magazine business.

A couple things caught my eye. First, I always feel a bit lost when I’m working on a freelance piece and someone I’m interviewing asks me who I’m writing for. I always feel a bit sheepish saying it’s a freelance article that doesn’t have a home yet. Baum, a big advocate of writing a piece for a specific target magazine, has another approach:

When you are calling people and you don’t have an assignment yet, how do you convince them to talk to you?
I say, “I’m working on a story for The New York Times Magazine.” Or “I’m working on a story for Wired magazine.”

So you don’t let them know you don’t have the assignment in hand?
No, I say I’m working on a story for Wired magazine and I am. My relationship with Wired magazine at that point is none of their business.

What do you do if they ask when the publication date is?
I say “I don’t know, that’s out of my hands; it’s above my pay grade.”

He also has some bleak things to say about the current state of writing for magazines:

Do you worry about competition — other writers coming in and horning in on your gigs?
No. For one thing, we’re kind of out of magazines. I think in a way, it’s over. I think the days of being able to make a living as a magazine writer are rapidly coming to a close.

That is so sad.
It is. I’m not boasting here, but I should be able to get work, right? I was on staff to The New Yorker for 3 years, I worked for Rolling Stone for a long time. I have written for the biggest and most prestigious magazines out there and I can’t get work. Magazines are closing, they’re shrinking, they’re going from 12 issues a year to 10 issues a year, and they’re going from 300 pages to 140 pages.

Anyway… interesting, motivating, and despressing, all in one tidy little article.  Check it out.

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