“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 Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 17)

For most of us, NFL preseason games in August are meaningless. Few of the starters play, the games are sloppy, and nothing much seems to be at stake. The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot by Charles Seibert for the New York Times Magazine shows us that for a handful of college stars hoping to cling to a dream of making it as professional player, everything is at stake.

Pat Schiller

Photo credit: Christaan Felber for The New York Times

The story follows the summer and fall of former Northern Illinois University star Pat Schiller as he tries to make it onto an NFL roster. When his name doesn’t get called during the NFL Draft in April, his fate comes down to impressing coaches during offseason workouts and preseason games. Like many other athletes who are close enough to be considered for the league, but not quite good enough to get a guaranteed spot on a roster, it’s a uncertain time. His future swings in the balance: are his football days behind him, or can he make a few key plays at the right time that will earn him a chance to play in front of thousands of screaming fans in a regular season NFL game?

Seibert does a good job showing us the conflict and uncertainty around Schiller, the stress he faces being a hometown hero at the same time that he’s fighting for an unlikely roster spot on and NFL bench:

Later that evening, my last night in Geneva, Pat and I stopped into a few of the local haunts along his hometown’s historic main street (a location for the period film “Road to Perdition”). Wherever I went with “Mayor Schiller,” as one friend called him, drinks materialized and tabs disappeared. Owners, managers, friends and friends of friends all stopped by to ask how Pat was doing and to wish him well.

“It’s weird,” he said to me during a rare lull. “For some reason I’m cool because I’m able to play a game. And they don’t realize how hard and cutthroat it is now. They’ll say things like, ‘Hey, worst-case scenario, you’ll be on the practice squad.’ And I’m thinking, Are you kidding? That would be unbelievable. But these people are really counting on me, and I feel a lot of pressure to not let them down. That’s a big part of what drives me. And I like being the interesting guy, you know? I want to be talked about and turn heads when I walk into a place. Who doesn’t? It sounds so egotistic, but it’s what it is. And to think this is all going to be done one day, probably sooner than later, and I’ll have to face reality. Have a 9-to-5 job, not be Mr. Interesting anymore and never have the rush that I get before games. That’s scary to me.”

Like hundreds of other would-be NFL players, Schiller struggles with the possibility that at 22 or 23, his career as star athlete has peaked, and it may be time to drop a lifelong dream.

As Schiller continues to struggle to make the squad, his hopes start to hinge on the health of other players, and the reader gets to see the macabre but real aspect of the game: an injury to one player is an opportunity for someone else:

Somehow it wasn’t until we were watching postgame highlights that either of us noticed the backup linebacker, Robert James, whose former place on the practice squad Pat now held, had come into the game sometime during the fourth quarter. Pat sat bolt upright, grabbed the remote and scrolled back through the game to determine the precise moment James entered. He then went to the Falcons’ game thread on his computer, eyes narrowing, lips slightly parted in anticipation.

“Stephen Nicholas,” he muttered. “Ankle.”

For the next two days of my visit, we were on the Stephen Nicholas ankle watch. Texts and calls came from all directions. Everyone Pat knew, it seemed, was aware of Nicholas’s ankle. Gruder, with whom Pat had only exchanged a couple of text messages since Gruder was released in August, wrote, “You getting called up this week?” Chris Browning of ProForce phoned to ask the same thing. Over dinner the following night, the number of Dave Lee, Pat’s agent, flashed up on Pat’s cellphone. Pat held the phone to his ear. A protracted silence.

The story is a revealing, inside look at what it takes to make it as a pro athlete. Seibert lets us see the physical and psychological toll it takes on the players on the edges of the game.

Read The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot →

“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,” →

“A Wicked Wind Takes Aim” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Ten)

In April 20, 2004, a massive tornado descended on the town of Utica, Illinois, taking with it the lives of eight residents. The sudden destruction of the tornado instantly devastated the community. Julie Keller of the Chicago Tribune wrote a three-part series on the tragedy that subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Reading the series, it’s not hard to see why. Her work is powerful, suspenseful, and superbly researched. And it reads like a novel. Keller reconstructs, moment-by-moment, what happened before, during, and after the terror dropped down from the sky and shattered a town.

Milestone Memorial Markers

Photo by John Lee for the Chicago Tribune

For the purposes of this write-up, I’m focusing on the first two articles in the series, A Wicked Wind Takes Aim and “Milestone’s Gone!”, but I recommend reading all three.

So why is this so good?

First off, Keller is an excellent reporter in this series, packing the stories with details, names, and a clear timeline of the event, along with what people were thinking at the time. But she also underscores the series with larger themes of the search for finding meaning in the tragedy. It’s a story about what happened, but it’s also about a lot more than that; it challenges the reader to consider his or her own mortality and the randomness we all face every day. In the sixth paragraph of this series, she hints at what is coming how it will affect those who survived:

…a short distance away, disparate elements–air, water and old sandstone blocks–soon would slam into each other like cars in a freeway pileup, ending eight lives and changing other lives forever.

The survivors would henceforth be haunted by the oldest, most vexing question of all: whether there is a destiny that shapes our fates or whether it is simply a matter of chance, of luck, of the way the wind blows.

A second technique that stood out to me in this piece is that Keller exhaustively researched and reported the piece, but narratively ties it altogether without fabricating anything. She takes artistic license without being dishonest or misleading. For example, as she describes Shelba Bimm driving across town minutes before the tragedy struck, she includes this paragraph:

All told, it took her less than a minute to cross Utica. Had she happened to lift her pale blue eyes to the rear view mirror as she left the city limits, she would have seen, poised there like a tableau in a snow globe just before it’s shaken up, her last intact view of the little town she loved.

Keller doesn’t manufacture a scene where Bimm looked in her rearview mirror; she says, accurately, that if Bimm had looked up, what she would have seen. And the paragraph itself is beautifully written with the description of Bimm’s eyes and the image town as “a tableau in a snowglobe.” It creates a powerful sense of the ominous force that is about to arrive and the loss to come.

Throughout this piece, Keller writes with simple, economical language, but also selectively poetic moments. She takes the descriptions of the events from the people she interviewed and builds from them some beautiful writing. It is tense, suspenseful, and memorable. You could even say cinematic. Consider this stretch of writing as she describes the arrival of the tornado:

At 5:58 p.m., Dena Mallie saw it from her driveway in Peru.

As it blossomed darkly, a huge batwing erasing the sky around it, a Utica contractor named Buck Bierbom saw it from his back yard.

Rona Burrows saw it. She leaned out the front door at Mill Street Market, where she worked as a cashier, and looked up at the sky.

Lisle Elsbury saw it from the alley behind Duffy’s.

It was a great black mass, a swirling coil some 200 yards wide at the ground–it was wider in the sky–heading northeast at about 30 m.p.h. They looked up and saw it but they thought: No. Couldn’t be. Could it?

There was a wild beauty to it, a fiercely knotted loveliness that was like nothing they’d ever seen. They could see debris swirling in it, pulled in and out and sucked up and around, frenzied sticks of wood, trees, dirt, other things, everything.

The ones who watched it come, watched it fill more and more of the blue-green sky like the canvas of a finicky painter who decides to slather the whole thing in black and start over, felt almost hypnotized at first, rooted to the earth but looking up, up, up. “Awesome” is the word that came instantly to Mallie. And not the way teenagers meant it. Awesome as in something that fills you up with awe.

Those seven paragraphs are a remarkable mix of reporting, research, and artful literary writing. She notes the time, where people stood when they saw it, what people thought, and what it looked like. The scene is suspenseful, gripping, rhythmic, and real; and Keller packs all that into 230 words.

Throughout the story, Keller uses visual metaphors. One of my favorites is how she describes, in the second part of the series, what the Milestone tavern looked like after being hit by the tornado: “like a sandcastle squashed by a bored kid at the beach.”

Finally, as noted above, Keller does a great job getting into the heads of the people she interviewed. She takes her reporting and uses it to create a vivid sense of someone’s thoughts at the time. Consider this part of the second story as she recreates the thoughts of Fire Chief Mike Edgcomb as he rushed to the site where the Milestone tavern once stood:

Please, God. Don’t let it be kids.

That was Edgcomb’s single thought, the one that kept pace with his racing heart as he ran toward Milestone: Please, God, no kids. Please. Please.

He’d been a firefighter for 25 years, he was a powerful, well-built man, a natural leader, and nobody would call Dave Edgcomb weak, no sir. He carried an air of can-do confidence.

But right now he was, in his thoughts, on his knees:

Please, God, just don’t let it be kids.

The short paragraphs written with the quick, panicked thoughts of the experienced Fire Chief feel genuine convey the urgency and uncertainty of the moment. Again, the reader feels like he or she is there, on the site, experiencing the drama first hand.

I could go on for another thousand words on how good this series is, but that’s why it won the Pulitzer. This should be required reading for students of nonfiction writing.

The best nonfiction writing combines research, reporting, and artful literary writing; this series puts the best of all three on display.

Read A Wicked Wind Takes Aim and “Milestone’s Gone!”

“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” →

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.