“Life of a Salesman” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 20)

One of my favorite forms of nonfiction work is a well-written profile, especially when the subject of the piece isn’t a celebrity or a politician. It’s not hard to get people interested in a profile on Rhianna or LeBron James, but when a writer can look at at an everyday person and tell their story in a compelling, meaningful way, that’s a beautiful thing.

“Life of a Salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized” by Eli Saslow in the October 7, 2012 edition of the Washington Post is a good example of this. Saslow spends some time with Frank Firetti, a Virginia-based small business owner and pool salesman, as he struggles to keep his business afloat in the struggling economy of 2012. Nothing shocking or dramatic happens in this story; there’s no life or death moments at stake, no critical conflict, no crime, no injustice, no tragedy. It’s about a man trying to sell a pool. More broadly, it’s about his dreams and his hopes as they come up against economic challenges. It’s a little story and big story at the same time.

Frank Firetti

Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount for the Washington Post

There’s a lot I admire about this story. Saslow pays close attention to the little details. As he shows us Firetti out on sales call, or back at his office, we get a very clear sense of what it looks and feels like in his space:

He loved being in the car, the one place that was his alone, where he could fortify himself against stress and negativity. There was Motrin in the center console for his headaches, hand sanitizer for germs and four empty bags of pistachios, because cracking shells occupied his hands and quieted his mind. There was classic rock on the radio, because he had changed the station when the host of his favorite conservative talk show started dissecting the economy, a word Frank couldn’t stand to say or hear, because he had come to equate it with “an excuse for failure,” he said. There was a Bible open on the back seat, because having it there occasionally helped seal the deal with a religious customer, but mostly because Frank was an ardent believer who liked to read and annotate the book when his faith needed restoration.

I like how that paragraph opens and closes with two broader themes: his need for solitude and his reliance on faith. But in between that, Saslow sandwiches a ton of detail: the Motrin, the hand sanitizer, the empty pistachio pags, the classic rock on the radio, the conservative talk radio, the bible in the backseat.

I also like how Saslow ties the profile to the broader themes of the middle class struggles in 2012, in particular, the idea of the swimming pool as a symbol of success:

But the more he learned about pools, the more he found them representative of something larger. They were carvings etched into back yards as a mark of ascent, commemorating a customer’s arrival in the upper middle class. They were a signal: You had a pool, you were an American somebody. Frank loved to visit his construction sites, exchange his few words of Spanish with the crew and then patrol the area with a digital camera. The crews sometimes found it peculiar, but Frank didn’t care. He wrote into each contract that he was allowed to take pictures and chronicle his creation. A black hole in the earth became a smooth bowl of white-and-blue speckled plaster, filled with water so calm and pristine that it offered a promise. Here was a place of undisturbed relaxation, of aqua blue and sandstone, a monument to luxury that could be owned. He hung photos of his favorite pools in the office and brought others home to show his wife. He wanted one.

It’s telling that he sells swimming pools to others, but he hasn’t built his own yet. He has sketches of this elaborate, gigantic pool for his next house, but he’s nowhere close to getting it yet. And the fact that swimming pools sales have been down for years indicates the toll of the recession. The middle class is struggling right now, and, as a result, so is Firetti.

And the story captures some small, meaningful scenes. In the middle of the story we witness a video chat exchange between Firetti and his Philipino wife, who is overseas visiting her family. We’ve already learned about the financial and business pressure that mounts on him, and the reader then finds out that his wife is hosting a 300-person party for family and friends in Dumaguete City. As he hints at the cost of the event, she can’t (or pretends not to) hear him:

“What are you doing today?” he yelled.

“Oh, we are still getting ready for the party.”

It was the one-year anniversary of Suzette’s mother’s death, and she and her sisters had planned an event for 300. As usual, they had paid for all of it.

“Free dinner on the Firettis?” Frank said.

“What?” Suzette said.

She pointed to her ear, indicating a problem with the volume, but Frank wondered if she was choosing not to hear.

One thing that bothered me about the piece is that Saslow despite doing a fine job showing us Firetti and his challenges, he didn’t seem to trust the reader enough to get it without hammering the point home. At several spots, Saslow interjects heavy language that frames the story in the wider context, and I don’t think he needed it. For example, there’s a nice scene between Firetti and his son (who is now living at home and struggling with two jobs) and they talk about his future. But then Saslow adds this:

They stayed out on the deck until the sun disappeared behind the townhouses. Frank went to bed just before midnight and awoke at 4. He always had been a sound sleeper, but lately he had been putting himself to bed with Tylenol PM and stirring awake to questions in the middle of the night. When had stability become the goal in America? What kind of dream was that? And in the economy of 2012, was it even attainable?

I like that paragraph until the last two sentences. Do we really need those two questions for the reader? At times, Saslow, gets a bit heavy with lines like that that seem to hammer home the theme of the story, but we don’t need it. He’s already done his job well enough already. Firetti’s story stands well on its own; the reader doesn’t need the author to explain it as explicity as he does as certain stretches in the piece.

But overall, this is a good read. Ten years from now, if someone wanted to read about what it was like for many struggling middle-class Americans a month before the 2012 election, this would stand up well as a snapshot of a time and place, and how one man struggled with the American Dream.

Read Life of a Salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized →

“A Eulogy for #Occupy” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 18)

When I used to live in D.C., I often biked to work. On my way there, I would pass the tent city that cropped up at “Freedom Plaza” at the end of 2011, part of the spreading “Occupy” and “99%” protest movement. The colder it got, the more I admired their determination to stay and continue their protest. But I always kept riding by; I never stopped and talked to the people there. I never took the time to find out what it was all about.

A broken window with a note attached that reads "We are better than this"

Photo by Quinn Norton for Wired

Like many progressives, I found myself supportive of the Occupy protests, sympathetic to the their focus on income inequality and their critique of corporate influence over government and politics. But I never really understood the camps or the “general assembly” shouting. I didn’t really know what they wanted to achieve.

So Quinn Norton’s “A Eulogy for #Occupy” for Wired was a fascinating read. Norton spent a year “embedded” with the Occupy movement, living in their camps and occupied parks, and witnessed up close the rise and fall of the movement.

She is nostalgic about the community feeling that blossomed at many camps, rails against the brutality of police who assaulted protesters and ripped away the encampments, and describes the diversity of people who took part in the movement. And she helps convey why it just wasn’t about politics or debt or unemployment:

From the beginning there were two main parts to Occupy. There was the cause of economic justice — the idea that resources shouldn’t be distributed so unevenly. This idea, in its myriad forms, drove marches and injected the rhetoric of the “99 percent” into the political dialogue. This was what the press often thought Occupy was all about.

Less understood was the other part of Occupy — the part that was about the need for community. Occupiers came to the camps to care for others as much as they came to be cared for. People had to find a way to matter to each other in ways that weren’t mediated by the social services, the justice system, the institutions we stick each other into.

It was this need to serve each other, not any political message, that stocked the kitchens and filled the comfort barrels. It was that which kept volunteers up for days, taking care of drug addicts and neurotic students and old men with failing bodies.

Norton’s story is obviously from the perspective of a participant in the movement, but she doesn’t avoid some of the ugly elements that cropped up. She describes the breakdown of many occupy sites:

What began as a way to let people reform and remake themselves had no mechanism for dealing with them when they didn’t. It had no way to deal with parasites and predators. It became a diseased process, pushing out the weak and quiet it had meant to enfranchise until it finally collapsed when nothing was left but predators trying to rip out each other’s throats.

By the time I returned to NY from visiting the camp in DC, exhausted with the pain of six evictions, the NYC GA was a place where women were threatened with beatings, and street kids with calls to the police. All the reasonable people had gotten the fuck out. It had become a gladiator pit no one enjoyed watching. Even Weev, the famous internet troll, didn’t last through the nastiness of the GA I took him to. He left while I wasn’t looking, without saying goodbye. We never spoke about it. I didn’t blame him, and I didn’t have to ask why. It was the tiny, brutal, and bitter politics of failed people.

The story itself is a jumble of reflections, ideas, interviews, and asides from her year spent with the movement. It jumps around and doesn’t have the cleanest narrative structure. But it is heartfelt and honest, and reveals an insider’s viewpoint on something few of us really understood. I admire the dedication and commitment it took for her to live in this movement for a year and tell its stories.

Norton’s writing is eloquent and beautiful, but also honest and unsparing. Much like the movement, her article is a mix of idealism, cynicism, frustration, and hope.

Read “A Eulogy for #Occupy →

“The Lost City of Z” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 16)

There are longreads. And then there are long longreads. And then there are epic, holy-f@#king-shit longreads that just leave you blown away.

The Lost City of Z,” by David Grann in the September 19, 2005 issue of The New Yorker fits into that last category.

Percy Fawcett

Photo of explorer Percy Fawcett; source unknown

At just over 20,000 words, “The Lost City of Z” tells a sprawling story than spans more than a century, centered around British explorer Percy Fawcett — a real-world Indiana Jones — who ventured into the Amazon forest in 1925, searching for ruins of the fabled “City of Z,” a prehistoric civilization he believed to be buried somewhere out in the undiscovered jungle.

The story follows Fawcett’s expedition, which ventured into unmapped parts of the Amazon, never to return; several efforts by other explorers to find Fawcett, or his evidence of his demise; and finally, the author’s journey to Brazil to re-trace Fawcett’s footsteps. Grann tries to solve the mystery of what happened to the explorer, but also, if the City of Z he sought actually existed. It’s a fascinating history, with adventure and suspense across multiple narratives.

There’s so much to love about this story. First off, there’s the massive body of research packed into this piece. There’s so much here that the story was later expanded into a full length book. But in this initial version in The New Yorker, Grann gives us rich details from Fawcett’s own writings, mixed with beautiful description of what they experienced, like this:

Fawcett’s team stayed in Galvão’s red brick manor for several days, eating and resting. At one point, Galvão later told a reporter, Fawcett removed from his belongings a strange object covered in cloth. He carefully unwrapped it, revealing a ten-inch stone idol with almond-shaped eyes and hieroglyphics carved on its chest. Rider Haggard, Fawcett’s friend, had obtained it from someone in Brazil and given it to Fawcett, who believed that it was a relic of Z.

Then the three Englishmen were on their way again, heading east, toward Bakairí Post, where in 1920 the Brazilian government had set up a garrison—“the last point of civilization,” as the settlers referred to it. Occasionally, the dense forest opened up, revealing the blinding sun and blue-tinged mountains in the distance. The trail became harder, and the men descended steep, mud-slicked gorges and crossed rock-strewn rapids, where they had to check their skin for traces of blood, which might attract piranhas. They also had to remain alert for a pernicious eel-like fish called a candiru, which, as Fawcett once wrote, “seeks to enter the natural orifices of the body, whether human or animal, and once inside cannot be extracted.” Fawcett had seen one specimen that had been removed from a man’s penis. “Many deaths result from this fish, and the agony it can cause is excruciating,” he wrote.

Through the historical records, private notes, and correspondence, the 57-year-old Fawcett comes alive in this story as a very human figure.

The subsequent searches for Fawcett and revelations along the way become equally colorful. The explorers who followed Fawcett often met grim fates and gruesome endings. In the middle of the story, we learn that one of his descendants ominously came into possession of Fawcett’s ring, which had been recovered in 1979 by a filmmaker in Brazil:

Montet-Guerin said that she wanted to show me one more thing. It was a photograph of Fawcett’s gold signet ring, which was engraved with the family motto, “Nec Aspera Terrent”—essentially, “Difficulties Be Damned.” In 1979, an Englishman named Brian Ridout, who was making a wildlife film in Brazil, heard rumors that the ring had turned up at a store in Cuiabá. By the time Ridout tracked down the shop, the proprietor had died. His wife, however, searched through her possessions and emerged with Colonel Fawcett’s ring. Montet-Guerin, who had since put the ring in safekeeping, said, “It’s the last concrete item we have from the expedition.”

Montet-Guerin had been desperate to learn more, she said, and had once showed the ring to a psychic. I asked her if she had learned anything. She looked down at the picture, then up at me. “It had been bathed in blood,” she said.

Hollywood couldn’t write that any better.

But the core of the story is really about Grann’s efforts to try and find the lost city Fawcett was searching for at the time he disappeared. Grann slowly unspools two narratives in parallel: the more we learn about Fawcett’s history, the further along Grann advances in his own adventure. In the present day, he retraces Fawcett’s steps just as he reveals details from the historical part of the story.

Grann experiences the conditions first-hand that unraveled so many previous expeditions. As he treks through the jungle himself, he lives through some of the same fear that others faced:

Occasionally, I slipped in the mud, falling in the water. I yelled out Pinage’s name, but there was no response. Exhausted, I found a grassy knoll that was only a few inches below the waterline, and sat down. My pants filled with water as I listened to the frogs. The sun burned my face and hands, and I wiped muddy water on myself in a vain attempt to cool down.

After half an hour, I stood again and tried to find the correct path. I walked and walked; in one spot, the water rose to my waist, and I lifted the bags above my head. Each time I thought that I had reached the end of the mangrove forest, a new swath opened up before me—large patches of tall, damp reeds clouded with mosquitoes, which ate into me.

I won’t spoil anything else here, but suffice it to say: this is an amazing piece of nonfiction: part history, part detective story, part adventure. I’m in awe of the work and research that went into this story. Excellent storytelling and writing bring it all together. Despite this being the longest story I’ve read so far this month, I’d have happily read more.

Read The Lost City of Z” →

“Lottery Winner Jack Whittaker’s Losing Ticket” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 15)

It’s a cliché to say that money can’t buy happiness, but in the case of Jack Whittaker, who won $314.9 million in the Powerball lottery in 2002, the story is a lot worse than that. In a story that feel like it was pulled from a Hollywood screenplay, Lottery Winner Jack Whittaker’s Losing Ticket by David Samuel in the December 12, 2012 issue of BusinessWeek, breaks down Whittaker’s misfortunes after winning the lottery.

Jack Whittaker, and his family, posing after winning the lottery

Photo by Bob Bird/AP Photo

Samuel’s story on Whittaker is written very straightforward and journalistic style. There aren’t a lot of literary, poetic flourishes here (the story is for BusinessWeek, not The New Yorker, after all). But what stands out to me in this story is how much fine reporting is packed into the piece, and how well Samuel peppers the narrative with concrete, vivid details.

The opening two paragraphs are a great example of this:

Jack Whittaker, a 55-year-old contractor from Scott Depot, W.Va., had worked his way up from backcountry poverty to build a water-and-sewer-pipe business that employed over 100 people. He was a millionaire several times over. But when he awoke at 5:45 a.m. on Christmas morning in 2002, everything he’d built in his life held only passing significance next to a scrap of paper in his worn leather wallet—a $1 Powerball lottery ticket bearing the numbers 5, 14, 16, 29, 53, and 7.

Whittaker had purchased his lucky ticket, along with two bacon-stuffed biscuits, at the C&L Super Serve convenience store in the town of Hurricane on Dec. 24, 2002. That night, Whittaker went to bed thinking he’d missed winning the lottery by one digit—only to wake up on Christmas Day to find that the number had been broadcast incorrectly and the winning ticket was in his hand. “I got sick at my stomach, and I just was [at] a loss for words and advice,” he later remembered. When he returned to the convenience store on Monday, he quietly told the woman at the cash register he’d won. “No you didn’t,” she replied. “You’re not excited enough to win the lottery.”

Aside from some essential information: his age, where he was from, and what he did for a living, we also find out exactly when he woke up on Christmas morning, what kind of wallet he carried, the exact numbers on his ticket, what he ate the night before, the name of the store where be bought the ticket, and what was said between him and the woman at the register the next day. Most of those are small things, but they flesh out the scene. Sometimes it’s not great metaphors or turns of phrase that make writing feel alive, it’s the simple use of precise details.

Whittaker’s initial response and public statements show him to be generous and thoughtful about his good fortune: he donates a sizable part of his winnings to found two churches, set up a foundation for the needy, and even buys a new car and a house to the “biscuit lady” at the C&L. But the story quickly turns for the worse, with his family crumbling around him and his own behavior becoming wildly erratic and lawless. His teenage granddaughter, Brandi Bragg, with whom he was particularly close, also spirals out of control.

The heart of the story is a meticulously reported account of the many things that went wrong since the day Whitthaker posed with that massive pretend lottery check for the media. It goes from comical to disturbing to tragic.

And then the second part of the story shifts to Samuel’s efforts to track down and talk to the increasingly reclusive Whitaker. And here, the reporting is direct, but offers little elements of metaphor:

In the ten years since he became the wealthiest lottery winner in history, Whittaker has spoken rarely with the press. There have been reports that he’s broke. His name isn’t listed in the phone book, and none of his businesses—which include a bewildering variety of names and addresses—seem to be currently operating. At the rural address on the tax returns of the Jack Whittaker Foundation, there’s little more than a muddy lot with a few trailers and rows of used construction equipment. At the end of the lot, a small single-story building with a sign on the door reads “Please ring bell for assistance.”

In October, I rang the bell and waited in the rain. Through the glass of the door, I could see a photocopied color snapshot of a smiling blonde girl with hazel eyes, whom I recognized as Bragg. The plant by the front desk was dead, and judging by the leaves on the carpet, had been for a while. Around back a man in work clothes was sitting in his Jeep, waiting for the tank to fill up with diesel. “You won’t find him here,” he said. He offered a rough location for another Whittaker office, half an hour away.

Samuel’s description of the “muddy lot” where the Jack Whittaker Foundation exists today conveys a lot that he doesn’t have to say explicitly. And there’s no journalistic reason for him to mention the dead plant at the front desk and the fallen leaves on the carpet; they serve the story symbolically.

I enjoyed this story — it’s a superb piece of reporting — but I wish Samuel could have fleshed out the story a bit by talking with other figures in the story to get more of a sense of Whitthaker, stuff that wouldn’t show up on the police reports. I’d love to have heard from the Biscuit Lady, or one of the people at the many strip clubs he frequented, or someone who had been aided by his foundation. The story gives us a lot about the man, but it feels like we only get to understand him from a distance. Samuel makes it clear in the story that Whitthaker didn’t really want to talk to him. But as Gay Talese showed long ago, sometimes the best way to tell someone’s story it to talk to the people around them.

Samuel did a fine job here with limited access to the subject of his story. The reporting and storytelling is excellent, even if the story itself is a bit of a downer. He sprinkles the story with details and little bits of symbolism here and there to round out the edges of the piece. I’m not sure what to make of Whitthaker by the end of the story, but it has me thinking twice about how much better life would be if I won the lottery tomorrow.

Read “Lottery Winner Jack Whittaker’s Losing Ticket” →

“The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 14)

Within the narrative nonfiction, there is a wide range of genres, including, but not limited to: history, profiles, reported essays, investigative reports, and longform features. And then you occasionally get something like this, which is harder to classify, other than that it’s simply a great story.

The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever by Michael J. Mooney in D Magazine reads like a fictional short story, but it’s true.

Bill Fong

Photo by Tadd Myers

The story centers on Bill Fong, an amateur bowler, and the night he had a shot at perfection. One thing makes the story work is that Mooney takes his time introducing Fong as a character and shows us why his one night of greatness would matter so much to him. The background gives the reader empathy for Fong and a reason to feel invested:

Aside from bowling, Bill Fong hasn’t had a lot of success in life. His Chinese mother demanded perfection, but he was a C student. He never finished college, he divorced young, and he never made a lot of money. By his own account, his parents didn’t like him much. As a bowler, his average in the high 230s means he’s probably better than anyone you know. But he’s still only tied as the 15th best bowler in Plano’s most competitive league. Almost nothing in life has gone according to plan.

He likes to say he got his approach to bowling from the hard-hitting alleys in his native Chicago, where he went to high school with Michelle Obama. He was one of the few kids from Chinatown interested in bowling at the time. Despite his strict mother and the fact that his friends were all on the honor roll, little William preferred sports. He dreamed of being a professional athlete one day. He wasn’t big—too short for basketball, too slender for football—but he’d run up and down the block as a boy, racing imaginary friends.

When Fong was young, his parents divorced. He remembers the man who would become his stepdad taking his mom out on dates to a local bowling alley, where they could bring the kids. He noticed that when he was bowling, he wasn’t thinking about whatever was going on behind him. His mind could focus on the ball, the lane, the pins—and the rest of the world would disappear.

A second thing that makes this story work is that it’s just told very well. It’s dramatic, suspenseful, and written with visual details that give the reader a sense of how it looked and sounded at the Plano Super Bowl that memorably night.

The story reads like a real-life sports movie, with the underdog, underachieving Fong having the night of his life. He throws strike after strike, edging closer to a nearly impossible perfect night:

As he sent strike after strike down the lanes, he began to feel magical. Literally, the way he was commanding the balls to turn and burrow into the unsuspecting pins, it felt a little like he was moving heavy objects with only the power of his mind. In the fourth frame, both the seven and the 10 pins stayed up just a bit longer than he wanted. As he gestured with both arms, they fell. Something similar happened in the eighth frame.

“It was like Moses parting the sea,” he says. “I’d move my hands and everything would get out of the way.”

The drama builds and the pressure mounts as Fong gets closer and closer to hitting a level perfection to a degree than only a few bowlers have achieved. It leads to a tense, dramatic climactic moment and a surprising twist at the end.

Each time he approached the lane, the entire bowling alley went silent. Every time he let fly another roll, there were audible moans from strangers and shouts from the crowd: “That’s it, baby!” Each time he struck, the room erupted with applause. In all his life, Bill Fong had never heard anyone cheering him like that.

As a sports fan (and a sucker for good sports movies) one thing I’ve always loved is the chance to witness someone else’s greatest moment, a transcendant performance that will be remembered forever. And if that person is an underdog, even better. There’s something powerful about the idea that someone is chasing their dream, overcoming fears and adversity, and giving everything they have. Sports can crystallize those moments, focus them down to a single swing or shot or throw, or, in this case, a roll.

No spoilers here, other than to say that you should read this great story.

Read The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever →

“The Secret History of Guns” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 13)

As a big fan of authors like Adam Hochschild and Laura Hillenbrand, I’m always impressed with writers who can write about history in a riveting, colorful way. So many of the history books I read in high school and college were lifeless, tedious marches through events, places, and dates. But the best modern nonfiction writers like Hillenbrand and Hochschild make history feel fresh, vibrant, and relevant.

Adam Winkler’s The Secret History of Guns” from the September 2011 issue of The Atlantic is another fine example of a longform article that reveals history in a fresh, engaging way.

A gun with the barrel bent backwards

Artwork by Joseph Durning/Durning 3D

The politics of guns and gun control have been debated endlessly in newspapers and magazines over the years, but there has been much less written about the history of the issue. Winkler’s story is a surprising bit of history that shows how much the ideology behind guns and regulations have reversed dramatically over the years. And he tells that history with a keen sense of narrative.

For starters he opens with a scene that seem almost inconceivable today:

THE EIGHTH-GRADE STUDENTS gathering on the west lawn of the state capitol in Sacramento were planning to lunch on fried chicken with California’s new governor, Ronald Reagan, and then tour the granite building constructed a century earlier to resemble the nation’s Capitol. But the festivities were interrupted by the arrival of 30 young black men and women carrying .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols.

The 24 men and six women climbed the capitol steps, and one man, Bobby Seale, began to read from a prepared statement. “The American people in general and the black people in particular,” he announced, must “take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.”

Seale then turned to the others. “All right, brothers, come on. We’re going inside.” He opened the door, and the radicals walked straight into the state’s most important government building, loaded guns in hand. No metal detectors stood in their way.

Not only is this a gripping bit of history, framed with some nice details (the kids getting ready to eat with Governor Reagan, the specific firearms the Panthers arrived with, and the fact that there was no metal detector at the entrance of the state capitol in 1967), but it’s written with a cinematic appreciation for the symbolic importance of a moment. It doesn’t hurt that Bobby Seale was a great character with a talent for the dramatic.

Winkler also leave the reader stunned, dying to know what happened next. It’s a fine use of dramatic tension.

This scene serves as a launching point to explore the constitutional issues that have shaped gun rights and regulations since the birth of the nation, and why, until more modern times, the left was often the side pushing for guns rights, while the right often fought to restrict them.

To illustrate this, Winkler recreates another scene in which Huey Newton, one of the Black Panther leaders, has an armed confrontation with a police officer:

“Who in the hell do you think you are?” an officer responded.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?,” Newton replied indignantly. He told the officer that he and his friends had a legal right to have their firearms.

Newton got out of the car, still holding his rifle.

“What are you going to do with that gun?” asked one of the stunned policemen.

“What are you going to do with your gun?,” Newton replied.

By this time, the scene had drawn a crowd of onlookers. An officer told the bystanders to move on, but Newton shouted at them to stay. California law, he yelled, gave civilians a right to observe a police officer making an arrest, so long as they didn’t interfere. Newton played it up for the crowd. In a loud voice, he told the police officers, “If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.”

This scene isn’t just for the sake of drama. Winkler goes on to demonstrate how the arguments and the ideology of the Black Panthers will later be embraced and appropriated by the modern gun rights lobby. What was the rhetoric of the radical left in the 1960s becomes the arguments of mainstream conservatives today.

The story isn’t all dramatic moments like this; in fact, the majority of the piece is a methodical look at the history of gun laws in America from colonial times to present day. It challenges readers to drop their assumptions as to who stood on which side of gun laws. White Southerners sought to restrict gun rights in the reconstruction-era South, while freed slaves argued for Second Amendment rights. The National Rifle Association — yes, the N-fucking-R-A — supported gun registration and restrictions in the 1930s. Ronald Reagan fought for gun control at a time when the Black Panthers opposed it.

Start-to-finish, this is a great read and a surprising look at the history of gun control in America.

Read The Secret History of Guns →

“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.]

“Walking His Life Away” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Eleven)

A year ago, a good friend send me a copy of Gary Smith’s book, Going Deep, a collection of his longform articles from Sports Illustrated. Smith is a masterful writer who mostly covers sports.

But that’s misleading: he writes about people.

Some are pro athletes; some never make it to college. He writes about the biggest champions of the game; but also about people whose dreams of glory and fame never arrived. He gets to the core of the people he writes about, brings them to life for the reader. Sports is the underlying string that winds through most of his stories, but ultimately he writes about men and women and the challenges they face in life.

Albert Heppner

Until today, I hadn’t read Smith’s “Walking His Life Away,” published in the July 26, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated. I wasn’t familiar with Albert Heppner, the athlete profiled in the piece, and wasn’t sure I’d be interested in a man’s dream of Olympic walking glory. But once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.

One thing Smith does right away is to directly address the fact the Olympic Walking is a sport that most of us laugh at. Smith puts it all down there on the page, then shows us why we should care:

The walkers assembled for the 7:30 a.m. start. They’d all long since made it to the other side of mirth and disdain. They’d all had seven-year-olds follow them and ape their pumping arms and swaying hips. They’d all heard 20-year-olds barrel by in rusting cars and scream Fag! at them on country roads. They’d all shed their need for the world’s approval, attuned their ears and hearts to an inner voice. Except for one.

Al stood out. He was the 5’8″ pied piper of race walking, the 29-year-old with the munchkin’s cackle who was loved by everyone in his fringe fraternity. The one so loud that other walkers would remind him to use his indoor voice. So vulnerable that he’d sob on a stranger’s shoulder after being disqualified from a race. So exuberant that he’d end up on the dance floor at a postrace party, his shirt soaked, juking like no Jew ever juked, encircled by people chanting, “Go, Al! Go, Al! Go, Jiggy!” Rabbi Jiggy. That was just one of his nicknames.

A big reason this story is so powerful is that Smith brings Heppner to life. The story is loaded with stories about the man and his personality. Consider this short paragraph from early on in the piece as Smith talks about Heppner’s competitiveness and fire, and how he could often be a little too zealous:

Al’s competitive lust had cost him before. Once, when he was six and his father’s bike moved ahead of his, he’d pedaled so furiously that he’d pitched over the handlebars and broken his arm. At camp six years later he broke his arm again, astonishing counselors who had never seen a boy dive with such fury in a friendly game of Capture the Flag. Too many times he’d been disqualified from races because he couldn’t restrain his urge to go faster, faster, couldn’t keep both feet on the ground.

And as Smith describes Heppner in the biggest race of his life, he winds back a bit and dots the narrative with small stories about Heppner’s warmth, kindness, and vitality:

“Go, Al!” a fan screamed as the gun sounded and the walkers took off. Who wouldn’t root for him? He was the greeter at the gate, the man who popped up from his moonlighting post behind the customer-service desk at the training center dining hall and showed all the newcomers where to get their mail, their rubdowns, their grub, then helped them haul in all their belongings, thrilled to welcome one and all — Americans and foreigners, swimmers, skiers, shot-putters, shortstops — to the fantasy factory in the Southern California desert. He’d carry his lunch tray to the far table where a new arrival ate alone. He’d take the Honduran cyclist to the airport at 5 a.m., beg the outraged decathlete to make peace with the offending kayaker, concoct nicknames for them all. Hey, V-Dub! Big John Stud, my man! What’s happenin’, Apples? He turned his cramped dorm room into the campus lounge, the gathering place for field trips organized by camp counselor Al to the amusement park, beach, ball games, bars and dance clubs. He turned all these masters of abstruse and exotic athletic skills into the most unexpected thing: a family.

There are at least eight micro-moments in that paragraph, telling details that shape how we see him. It doesn’t take long for the reader to shift from casual interest to active empathy for Heppner.

Smith does a beautiful job intertwining two narratives: the story of the Olympic qualifier race, as Teppner’s fights to hang on to the lead, and the narrative of Teppner’s life and everything he and his family experienced to get to this moment. By the end of the piece, those two narratives merge, and the reader becomes one of those people on the sidelines, rooting for him, urging him on, trying to help him realize his life’s dream.

Read “Walking His Life Away,” →

“There and Back Again” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Seven)

There and Back Again,” by Nick Paumgarten for The New Yorker in April 2007, explores the issue of commuting from a wide range of angles: the impact on workers, trade-offs commuters make, and overall trends of sprawl, commuting, and social isolation. It’s an incredible story.

Paumgarten looks at the issue from the perspectives of four long-range commuters, a handful of experts and academics, and a body of historical, sociological, and psychological research on the topic. As with many of his stories, Paumgarten’s work is long, but the length has purpose: he tells a story from a multitude of perspectives and points of view. The story is both wonky and moving at the same time. Few writers can pull that off.

Illustration of a man in a car that is struck in heavy traffic

Illustration by The New Yorker

Nick Paumgarten is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. His stories are always deep, impressively researched, and beautifully written. His story about elevators — Up and Then Down — remains one of the best longform stories I’ve read. He wrote 8000 words on elevators and it was riveting, fascinating stuff.

Given that Paumgarten isn’t a one-hit wonder with “There and Back Again,” I thought I’d dissect the structure of this story a bit here to try and highlight why this story works so well. Here are a few take-aways:

First, Paumgarten constantly moves his writer’s lens in and out throughout the story. He will pull back and look at an issue from a sweeping macro level, then zoom back in very close on one particular subject for several pages, fleshing out his story with a real person, real moments, and personal experiences.

He opens “There and Back Again” with a some broad observations about workers and their commutes to and from work, as if his story was going to be an essay on the subject:

People like to compare commutes, to complain or boast about their own and, depending on whether their pride derives from misery or efficiency, to exaggerate the length or the brevity of their trip. People who feel they have smooth, manageable commutes tend to evangelize. Those who hate the commute think of it as a core affliction, like a chronic illness. Once you raise the subject, the testimonies pour out, and, if your ears are tuned to it, you begin overhearing commute talk everywhere: mode of transport, time spent on train/interstate/treadmill/homework help, crossword-puzzle aptitude—limitless variations on a stock tale. People who are normally circumspect may, when describing their commutes, be unexpectedly candid in divulging the intimate details of their lives. They have it all worked out, down to the number of minutes it takes them to shave or get stuck at a particular light. But commuting is like sex or sleep: everyone lies. It is said that doctors, when they ask you how much you drink, will take the answer and double it. When a commuter says, “It’s an hour, door-to-door,” tack on twenty minutes.

Shortly after this broad take on commuters, though, he zooms in close and introduces Judy Rossi, a legal secretary who has a three hour and fifteen minute commute each way to and from her Manhattan job. Paumgarten tags along with Rossi and travels with her on the daily commute, getting a sense of both the experience and of the person. He talks with her and gets quotes that help us understand her (and countless others like her). He reports little details, what she reads, what she listens to, and what her car smells like:

The train arrived, and we sat down, finally. From the backpack Rossi produced some photographs of her house, her swimming pool, and her granddaughter: her recompense, her consolation. “I keep these pictures above my desk at work,” she said. “Whenever I get fed up, I look at these and say, ‘That’s why I commute.’ ” Her son lives with his wife and two children in a separate house on the lot; unable to endure the same commute, he found a job working for Orange County, half an hour away. The property is surrounded by woods. Deer come and go. In her calculations, such blandishments outweigh the inconveniences and squandered hours.

At Harriman, most of the passengers disembarked, and Rossi removed her coat and put her bag on the floor. She took out her book, a James Patterson hardcover. For an hour, the train rattled through the night. Middletown, Otisville, Port Jervis, the end of the line. With keys in hand, she stepped out onto an open-air platform. The parking lot was part of a larger one abutting a mall. The night was dead-battery cold. “It’s a half hour from here,” she said.

Her car, a Toyota hatchback, smelled of cigarettes and dogs. (Rossi’s dogs—a standard poodle, a pit-lab, and a bichon frise—pass the days indoors.) She put on an oldies station—the Jackson 5 serendipitously singing “I’ll Be There”—and drove along a state road past shopping centers whose varying vintages indicated the advance of rural ruin. We passed a Price Chopper market, where Rossi does her food shopping twice a month. She gave up cooking some years ago.

A second Paumgarten technique: he starts and finishes his stories with people, but packs a lot of more brainy research and boarder thinking in the middle of the story. He often starts an article with a personal story (in this case, the experience of Rossi on her way home), then dives into some research and academic takes on a subject, before shifting back into some additional personal experiences. In the middle section of this story he tackles a lot: the etymology of the word “commuter”; the history of commuting and how Americans got to and from workplaces; comparisons between American commuters and those in other countries; the psychological effects of commuting on workers; the differences between commuters on trains vs. drivers; and the economics of income, real estate prices, and lengths of commutes. His story shifts gears from a personal profile of a New York commuter to a think piece:

Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. Recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger asked nine hundred working women in Texas to rate their daily activities, according to how much they enjoyed them. Commuting came in last. (Sex came in first.) The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.

After all this analysis, he looks at the sprawling, traffic-inflicted city of Atlanta and zooms back in on three commuters there. He captures little moments and details that feel tragic and sobering. And that strikes me as a third technique that Paumgarten uses skillfully: he writes scenes.

His eye for scene is as good as his knack for incisive research. Here are a few illustrative moments:

Scruggs tapped the steering wheel as traffic slowed again. “When you’ve had a long day and then sit in traffic for two hours, you say, I gotta find something else,” he said. “But then when you’re home there’s a reality check. My commute’s no different really from the commutes of people who are coming from the north side, where the cost of living is substantially higher. When you take all the factors into consideration, as frustrated as you get, I’m still not sure whether it’s worth making a move.”

I had talked to one Atlanta commuter who smokes a cigar to stay awake on his drive home each day, and to another who plays harmonica. One commuter began trying a meditation technique—breathe in one nostril and out the other—and got pulled over for speeding. Scruggs favored a more traditional approach. “The key is to eat a light lunch,” he said.

He exited the interstate at 6:06 p.m. “It’s ten or twelve minutes from here,” he said. “Piece of cake.” The road passed by a golf course, a high school, and a series of ranch houses with boats and cars out front, most of them apparently still operational. After a while, he made a right on Kripple Kreek Drive, which led him into a development called Barrington Farms. Home: 6:30 p.m.—one hour and twenty-two minutes. Deep twilight. His house was an off-white clapboard four-bedroom, on a one-acre lot. The kids were out playing on a swing set in the back yard. There was no arrival fanfare: Ulysses, ignored. He tends to see his kids for five minutes in the morning, and an hour in the evenings.

Paumgarten reminds me of an NBA player with an all-around game, the guard who can drive to the basket and score, hit a mid-range jumper, or step outside and unleash a three-point shot. Like a versatile scorer who can bank the ball in with either his left or right hand, he uses statistics and metaphors equally well. When Paumgauten writes from long-range, he does his homework, talks to experts, reads reports, and informs his analysis with a wealth of knowledge. When he gets in close, he writes with an eye for telling details and scenes, using the skills of a good fiction writer. His versatility and hard work are why he’s one of the best nonfiction writers out there.

Read There and Back Again →

“Atari Teenage Riot: The Inside Story Of Pong and the Video Game Industry’s Big Bang” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Six)

When I was ten, my brother and I would get up early on Saturdays, swipe the quarters off our dressers, and wait outside Zip’z, a local ice cream / “make you your own sundae” shop so we could be the first inside to play Asteroids. As a Gen X child of the ’80s, my formative years were deeply shaped by the dawn of the videogame era. Aside from the Six-Million-Dollar Man and Bo Derek, few things obsessed me more than Pong, Space Invaders, and Asteroids.

So naturally, I was drawn to the recent longform feature on the birth of Pong, the first popular video game you could play at pizza places and restaurants. Atari Teenage Riot: The Inside Story Of Pong and the Video Game Industry’s Big Bang by Chris Stokel-walker looks at the people behind the came and how it launched the home video game industry, which is now bigger and more profitable than the movie business.

Animated Pong Graphic

Art by Buzzfeed

[Just as an aside, let me take my writer hat off for a second and put on my designer hat: this story, as posted on Buzzfeed, has a wild and entertaining layout packed with animated graphics and retro-styled artwork (sample above), so be sure to check it out there rather than on any aggregator or reader-friendly tool like Instapaper or Pocket. The design really enhances the story and evokes the goofy, campy vibe of early Atari era.]

The story draws from interviews with the key players at Atari to build a straightforward chronological history of the birth of the first mass-market video game. He explores the roots of the industry in the 1960’s, how the creators came together, how game was built, the competition they faced, and how the business grew. Chris Stokel-walker infuses the story with a authentic sense of reverence, treating the story of Pong as if he were tracing the steps of Civil War figures. It opens with a focus on building that used to be Andy Capp’s Tavern, the first bar to have Pong available for customers.

He doesn’t lose focus of the characters in the narrative, which help make the history feel more vivid that it would be if it focused more on the technology:

In spite of the cramped Ampex office, Bushnell and Dabney became close when Bushnell asked Dabney to learn the Japanese board game Go so he would have a playing partner. “We’d only play at lunch,” Bushnell says — the idea of goofing off during the day was anathema to him. The duo graduated from a cheap and flimsy board to one handcrafted from a $6 offcut.

“I carved the board out of an inch-and-a-half-thick board and put a Videofile logo on the other side so it could hang on the wall,” Dabney recalls. When the two played, the board sat on top of a trash can, a coincidental foreshadowing of the future: The original Pong prototype in Andy Capp’s would sit squat on top of a barrel, people huddled around it.

Go was useful in another way as the two young men left Ampex to eventually launch their video game venture: When the local authorities told Bushnell and Dabney that a roofing contractor had already claimed the nerd-friendly sobriquet Sygyzy, they used a term from Go that was equivalent to chess’s “check” for their newly incorporated company: . Anglicized, that spells Atari.

After Bushnell and Dabney left Ampex, many of their colleagues thought they were crazy. “I felt kind of sorry for Nolan and Ted,” says engineer Al Alcorn, who would shortly join them. “They were quitting a good career at Ampex to go off and do this strange thing. That was the conventional wisdom: Where did these guys go wrong?”

The story also has great anecdotes about the unexpected addictive popularity of Pong, which, in retrospect, seems quaint and naive:

Within a few days, Bill Gattis, who ran the bar, was on the phone to Atari. “The machine had stopped working; I was told to go fix it,” Alcorn explains. ”I stopped over on my way home from work, and much to my surprise, the coin box was overflowing, gushing with quarters.”

“It’s weird,” Gattis told Alcorn as he counted the impressive bounty. “I’ve got guys at my doorstep at 10 a.m. when the place opens. They’re not drunks. They come in, play the Pong game, and don’t buy any beer.” Alcorn listened, and swapped out the milk jug for something a little bigger — a bread pan.

As a history of the game, the story is thoroughly and exhaustively reported. The research and homework are evident. My one quibble with the feature is that there’s more telling than showing in the piece. The story’s strengths are the interviews Stokel-walker had with founders Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn, but aside from some quick descriptions of their height or age, we don’t really “see” either men or how they live now. We don’t get much sense of their personality. The reader gets only a passing sense of these men and a wealth of their recollections. I can’t really tell from the story whether he met them in person or talked to them over the phone.

One thing I’ve always admired about the work of Malcolm Gladwell is that when he interviews people, he almost always gives the reader a rich sense of what that person and their office or workplace looks like — you feel like you’re in the space with Gladwell and can see each person as a living character in his story. I wish Stokel-walker had done more of that here. The story is close to 5000 words, and he covers a lot of ground in that space, but it would have been great if he could have slowed down a little and provided the reader with more visual details and description. Longer would have been fine. I get the sense that when writing and editing this story, he had to leave a lot of great stuff in his notes. If Stokel-walker releases a book-length version of this story, I’m buying it.

Still, this is a fine story and must-read for interested in the early days of the video game era. Stokel-walker presents a rich history of the birth of an industry.

Read Atari Teenage Riot:The Inside Story Of Pong and the Video Game Industry’s Big Bang →

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