Super Subcultures

These Gender-Nonconforming People Are Building a Safe Haven on an Appalachian Farm

Growing their own food and winning over their neighbors, they feel safer in rural West Virginia than they ever did in the big city.

Up the narrow, winding roads where the Appalachian Mountains cut through West Virginia, the countryside is dotted with squat one-story homes. Some are decorated with American flags and covered in slabs of cheap plywood; other homes are sturdier buildings painted with delicate country motifs. In each yard, animals wander freely, and golden sunlight bounces off the purple wildflowers and rolling meadows.

One small town here, a settlement established in the 1800s, has a Walmart, a gas station, a Wendy’s fast food restaurant, and a handful of churches. Down a forked road, half an hour outside town, the pavement turns to gravel and the landscape changes to deep forest. It’s here that Honeybee Williams’ new home comes into view, its sharp, modern angles contrasting with the softness of the countryside and her surrounding 65-acre-farm. On a summer afternoon, Williams, a 26-year-old transgender woman from Maryland, sits at a long, rectangular table in the garden in front of her new home, wearing a lacy pink dress and braiding a piece of grass, her dirty blonde hair tucked into a ponytail at the nape of her neck.

Williams and a small group of young transgender people are working to transform this Appalachian community, with its dwindling population and flailing economy, into a place where LGBTQ people can rebuild local ecosystems and fight for environmental justice and sustainability.

To some, this region, where trees outnumber people, might seem like a strange choice for a group of marginalized people looking for community and safety. Residents of Appalachia have a reputation for being wary of outsiders, and much of the region is politically and socially conservative. But Williams and the rest of the farm’s residents (whose names have been changed here to protect them from the violence, harassment, and discrimination transgender people regularly face), say Appalachia’s open spaces and sparse population offer an opportunity for LGBTQ people who feel isolated and alone.

* * *

It started with a death. Last year, when a local artist died, and left the 65-acre property and home he built to the West Virginia Regional Land Trust, the Trust’s board decided to give it to a group of people aiming to create an intentional community. The Trust launched a call for proposals and asked applicants to submit a one-page description of what they would do with the land. Williams, along with Sara Smith, an Indian-American transgender woman from Detroit, and Jamie Taylor, a gender-neutral Native American from North Carolina, both of whom are in their late twenties, jumped at the opportunity. Their six-page proposal included a five-year plan, a resource assessment, a fundraising campaign to build new infrastructure on the property, and a detailed framework for developing an intentional community for LGBTQ people with a particular emphasis on people of color.

Williams and her boyfriend, Heron, were living in their car with their two dogs when they heard about the call for proposals. Heron is 24 years old and grew up in rural Maine. In his free time he plays the fiddle, collects rocks, and classifies different types of moss. Today he lives with Williams on the farm and enjoys bluegrass music, whittling, and herb farming.

Honeybee Williams.

After facing constant harassment in big cities for the way she looked and dressed, Williams chose to drive up and down the East Coast doing seasonal work and taking on odd jobs, like picking blueberries in Maine or helping a friend with a construction project. For her, moving to Appalachia was a chance to have a fresh start and a permanent home again.

“I thought, this is the one chance I’m going to get,” Williams remembers. “I wanted to show these people who don’t know me that they could give this land to these trans kids and expect that we would take care of the place.”

Since then, the group has learned the history of West Virginia and how the economy has changed Appalachia’s landscape. They’ve made it their mission to remove the invasive plant autumn olive from their property, and they’ve started to forge relationships with their neighbors. The group has gotten particularly close with one of the women on the Trust’s board, a member of the Catholic Worker Movement (a group of autonomous Catholic communities) who moved to Appalachia several decades ago. Williams, Smith, and Taylor occasionally give tours of the area to groups of Catholic students visiting Appalachia to learn about conservation. One of their main goals is to promote community resiliency in the region, which has been impacted by flooding and pollution and has lost many of its traditional farming practices.

“This hollow used to produce so much of its food, and people have gotten away from those ways,” says Williams, as she sits in the property’s serene garden, surrounded by edible plants. “Community resiliency is about us being in it together and building something sustainable for generations to come. We want to live in a place where we can make connections with our neighbors, where we can grow grains that we know are going to grow in this region.”

The property contains the small house where the group lives, several gardens for growing vegetables, fields of grass the residents hope to convert into farmland, a pen where their 14 ducks live, and acres of wooded hills. Deep in the woods is a dilapidated WWII-era cabin and a dried-up ditch where a small pond used to be. The group lives in quiet intimacy on the property, telling jokes and engaging in long conversations when they want company, or writing, playing music, gardening, and doing housework in solitude. Each person uses their unique talents to turn the place into a home.

Williams and her boyfriend were the first people to move onto the land, and she has taken a lead role in building and mending the house. Arriving in December of 2016, her first major project was to fix their only source of heating, a stove that was falling apart after years of disuse. It was snowing on the day she moved in, and Williams surveyed the wood stove with its missing stovepipe.

“I was like, I’m going to the hardware store and buying a stovepipe and attaching it to the roof so we don’t freeze,” she says, laughing.

Williams, Smith and Taylor launch into a jovial assessment of her handiwork, giggling as they point to the spots where the stovepipe jutting from their roof is still lopsided.

Smith is a slender, 28-year-old transgender woman of Indian descent. Her sleek black hair is fasted in a ponytail that hangs coquettishly at the side of her head, and she is wearing a loose turquoise shirt and long black maxi skirt decorated with sequins. She and Taylor tease Williams, but Williams appears confident about her work.

Taylor looks over the garden.

“I knew the stovepipe had to be higher than the roof to create a draw and pull all of the air out,” she explains. “I’m the builder, I’ve never grown a tomato in my life, you can’t expect me to keep anything alive, but I can fix a window and put in a door, I can put up a stovepipe or dig a hole.”

The group is now focusing on making the property as hospitable as possible so other people will be tempted to join them here. Williams constructed a homemade toilet from a deep hole in the ground and a plastic bucket with a toilet seat fastened on top. Slabs of wood surrounding the toilet offer a semblance of privacy. But the property has no electricity for now, and there are wild animals. One day, Williams was sitting in a wheelbarrow reading a book when a bobcat walked down the road. Her boyfriend was almost attacked by a bobcat when he was singing in the garden another day; Williams is convinced that his subpar singing voice was what attracted the beast. The area is also known to have mountain lions, and bears and deer regularly visit the property’s garden to eat the kale and squash.

* * *

For Williams, the threat of wild animals is far less perilous than the threat she faced from other humans before moving to Appalachia. When she lived in cities like Baltimore and Washington D.C., Williams was physically threatened and harassed more times than she can count. All of the farm’s inhabitants share memories of the trauma and discrimination they faced in more populated urban centers as a result of their gender identity. Everyone living at the farm had trouble talking about their gender with their families, were physically attacked or threatened while living in cities, and faced persistent homelessness. In D.C. and Baltimore, Williams and her friends were regularly grabbed or groped by passing cyclists, and people often screamed insults at them from passing cars. Street harassment was an everyday occurrence.

Last year, at least 23 transgender people died in the United States due to violence, the highest number ever recorded, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The group also reports that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia often deprive these women of employment, housing and healthcare, making them especially vulnerable.

Williams was working as a labor organizer in Baltimore when she decided to go “full-time,” a term for when transgender people begin to represent their true gender identity all of the time. The shift was incremental. First, she started wearing dresses every day, then she began fixing her eyebrows, wearing makeup, and growing her hair long. Now her dirty blonde hair reaches past her shoulders. But this transition was far from easy. She says the community organizers she worked with, people who claimed to be radical and progressive, were not comfortable interacting with and supporting transgender people.

“I was facing huge amounts of street harassment and violence that I’d never experienced before,” says Williams, remembering the time when she began identifying as a woman. “Doing it sometimes in controlled environments is different from doing it every day and needing to get on this bus and go to work.”

As time went on, her mental health began to deteriorate. Terrified of being attacked, she stopped leaving the house and seeing her friends. When she did go out, she carried a baton for self-defense. Williams was yelled at, catcalled, and harassed every day on the streets of Baltimore, and she was physically attacked so many times she was sure one day someone would kill her.

She feels safer now that she’s living in Appalachia. The fact that she knows all of her neighbors, and that there aren’t very many of them, is preferable to being stared and yelled at by strangers in the city each day. There are several families living up the gravel road near their property, a man who lives alone, and one gay man who lives in the town and works at a restaurant. The group has made contact with all of them with varying degrees of success, but they spend most of their time at home working on the property. One of the farm’s neighbors, another man who lives by himself, brings them fresh eggs and tomatoes sometimes.

“In the city you can have the anonymity to be any terrible human being that you want to be without any repercussion, but here you know who everyone is,” she says. “Everyone who has a Confederate flag out here, we know their names, we interact with them on a regular basis. There is a sense of community that you don’t have in the city.”

Smith wanders over to the table carrying a plate of salad greens freshly picked from the garden. The array of herbs and leaves is richer and tastier than the produce found in most supermarkets.

“Oh, it’s a friendly little kale bug,” she coos, picking the insect off of the leaf and flicking it onto the ground. A few minutes later she lobs a piece of apple into the nearby compost pile.

“There is kale, there is something called shiso, which is strongly antibacterial, there is amaranth, chickweed, arugula, buckwheat, so it’s half grown and half wild… I can talk for hours about microgreens,” she continues, gesturing towards the salad on her plate. “You should try shiso, it’s like basil meets mint.”

Smith is the group’s permaculture expert. She began learning about farming after leaving her job as an engineer with an automobile company in Michigan when she was in her early twenties. Her decision to leave home was fueled by the feeling that she couldn’t fully express herself with her family and co-workers. Her parents, who had immigrated to the U.S. from India a few years before her birth, had a hard time accepting that their child was transgender.

“My dad grew up in the 1980s in India and everyone was really fearful of AIDS, so I think there was a lot of propaganda against gay men and how they are evil; although, if you look back in Hinduism there is actually a tradition of gender non-conforming people, and you can find it in the scriptures that being trans is powerful,” she says, adjusting her flowing black skirt with a manicured hand.

Smith’s parents were angry when she explained her gender identity to them. They yelled and screamed and mentioned that she played with boys’ toys as a child.

After leaving home and quitting her job, she bounced between farming projects in New Hampshire, Colorado, New Mexico and California for a few years, and eventually began working for a solar energy company in D.C. It was there that she connected with Williams and several of the farm’s other residents. The women were involved in organizing grassroots activities and charity events for the LGBTQ community in Washington. But Smith also experienced violence while living in the city.

“Violence of all kinds comes hand-in-hand with being gender non-conforming. There is a big relationship between violence and gender,” she explains. “I felt pretty unsafe in D.C.”

People regularly threatened Smith’s physical safety, and she had weapons pulled on her on numerous occasions while living in the city. Like Williams, she feels safer now that she’s living in Appalachia, but being a person of color in a majority white community has added an extra challenge. When Smith and Williams visited a local government office to request food stamps, Williams, who is white, was given the food stamps right away, while Smith, who is of Indian descent, was asked to prove that she is a citizen. She often has to modify her real name because people don’t know how to pronounce it.

“I’m very aware of being different through multiple layers,” she says. “I told [neighbors] the name of the town where I was born, and they were like, ‘In America?’ I said, yeah, I was born in Detroit, and they were like, ‘Detroit, America?’”

* * *

Today, the group is working to build the relationships of mutual support and trust that are the pillar of Appalachian society. Down the narrow gravel road where they live, they are slowly reaching out to their closest neighbors. Williams, who is a trained medic, has informed the neighbors that their house has Narcan, a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses a drug overdose.

West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in a country plagued by an opioid epidemic. In 2015, the state’s drug overdose death rate was 41.5 cases per 100,000 residents, nearly three times the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Williams thinks a big part of the reason so many people die in West Virginia is because they are too far from a hospital when they overdose. Offering Narcan might make people feel awkward at first, but she thinks it’s better in the long run that they know the drug is available nearby.

Despite their efforts, sometimes neighbors can be standoffish. Many aren’t accustomed to having outsiders move in. In the nearest town, the population fell by around seven percent between 2010 and 2016.

Meanwhile, the farm’s isolation can lead to something the group nicknamed the “hollow ramble.”

“We’ll see people in town who we know and we’ll just start rambling on about a lot of stuff people don’t even care about,” explains Jamie Taylor, 28, who met Williams and Smith in Washington D.C. and later joined them in Appalachia.

Taylor, one of five siblings, grew up in an impoverished North Carolina fishing village. As a teenager, they began reading blogs on Tumblr and learning the terminology needed to self-identify as transgender. But when they came out at the age of 15, their religious stepfather attacked them viciously. After leaving North Carolina at the age of 25, Taylor experienced homelessness on numerous occasions.

Honeybee, Sara and Taylor walk through their garden.

Today, Taylor sits basking in the sun at the long rectangular table, wearing jean shorts over their slender legs and a shiny headband to hold back their chin-length blonde hair. Taylor often catches themself talking to the farm’s 14 ducks, and sometimes Taylor even hand-feeds them and cradles them on their lap.

Williams, too, has examples of her hollow ramble.

“The weeds are this tall now, we need to cut the grass, maybe it’ll rain next week, the deer ate my squash, you won’t believe what this duck did, I put a couple of screws in that piece of wood,” she describes, laughing. “And you just ramble and ramble, because other than each other we haven’t seen other human beings in like four days.”

Still, all of the farm’s residents are excited about transforming the community into a safe and sustainable place that can accommodate more LGBTQ people. Smith is especially excited about promoting anti-racism, environmental justice, and justice for transgender people, and she wants the farm to be a place for people to do different iterations of that work without too many rules.

“LGBTQ folks in rural areas don’t have community, but there are issues we can tangibly address by offering residency, among other things,” Smith explains.

In the quiet atmosphere of the garden, surrounded by sorghum and pumpkin plants, the group discusses their numerous projects and plans for collaborative farming and community resiliency. Raising ducks, planting seeds, building beehives, and milling wheat are all on the agenda, as is planting fruit and nut trees.

They temper their excitement about the new project by remembering how much hard work is needed to create a sustainable project that people will be interested in joining.

“Here we have steep hills, but there is a lot of potential to grow a huge percentage of the food we eat,” Williams says as she continues to braid the long piece of grass.

She pauses and looks around.

“This is better than anything else I’ve ever had.”

Memoir

Secret Life of an Autistic Stripper

I've always had trouble reading social cues, but in the strip club, where rules and roles are crystal clear, I finally learned to connect.

I walked past the stage and sat down at the bar, the neon lights illuminating my pink teddy, shadowed eyes, and crimson lips. I ordered my first drink of the night and took inventory of the club. There were a few listless customers scattered around, hunching over bar stools, and a dancer circling the pole.

I waved over a colleague, a transplant from Manchester with hair extensions that kissed her velvet garter belt. We grumbled about how slow business was until I spotted a paunchy man at the bar. He was short, with a tuft of gray hair and a slight smile that crinkled his eyes. He was also more animated than the others.

“Do you want to try?” I asked her out of a sense of politeness.

“You go,” she said, waving her hand.

I started off light, asking about his day and his job. His smile widened across his face as my eyes met his. I silently counted to 10 and reminded myself to look away for a second – best not to terrify him. After three minutes, I transitioned to more personal questions, moving steadily through the formula I’d perfected to curate conversation with customers.

He started complaining about his recent breakup, but it didn’t feel genuine, his eyes twinkling with eagerness. I switched my gaze to the top of his nose to put a boundary between us.

I could tell he was interested in spending money, but he’d be hard work. It was time to either close the sale or walk away. He’d take advantage of my time otherwise.

“Ready for fun?” I whispered in his ear to avoid his eyes.

I didn’t bother mentioning the private rooms. After two years in the industry, I knew which customers were worth investing in – not this guy. So, I led him into the corner, which opened up to the club like the bow of a ship, public and safe, for one quick dance.

* * *

Before working in strip clubs, I struggled to read people’s emotions through cues like facial expressions, postures, and tone of voice in real time. I processed events after the fact with tenuous evaluation, like peeling off layers of old wallpaper. At the time, it was not something I had words to explain, so I turned the blame on myself. Whenever I struggled to understand if someone was angry or bored, I went home and berated myself for being lazy, ditzy, and dumb as I obsessively evaluated the night. I just needed to try harder to be more present, I told myself.

One time, I went to a dinner party my sister hosted. A few of her colleagues and friends sat around her table while we snacked on hummus and bread, and someone asked about my recent trip to Europe. I rambled incessantly, illustrating the nightclubs, the hostels I stayed in, even how I bled through my powder-blue dress because I forgot to change my tampon. My voice was loud, a  pitch you use at a concert, not inside. I can see their faces now, wide-eyed and uncomfortable, but at the time they coalesced into one indistinguishable figure, Dave Matthews playing in the background taking precedent. Their distaste didn’t register until my sister pulled me aside and asked as kindly as possible to keep to “lighter” topics.

After dinner, we dispersed to the living room and I attempted to talk to my sister’s colleague, but I forgot to break eye contact, continuously staring wide-eyed while she spoke.

“You’re certainly a character,” she remarked, exiting the conversation. I didn’t realize until later that I’d made her uncomfortable.

I didn’t know what slow processing was then, but I was aware I felt embarrassed a lot, and lonely. Facial expressions, body language, and eye contact are the bones of communication and it’s quite difficult to build and maintain relationships without the ability to read them.

So, I meticulously designed a persona who nodded at the right time, rehearsed lines, smiled when appropriate, monitored personal space, spoke quietly. Before going out, I crafted notecards, scribbling how long to talk about acceptable topics and which to stay clear of altogether, like my period, in small talk. The persona was a mask that helped me appear to interact in the moment, but in reality I crept by, three paces behind everyone else.

* * *

I had just celebrated my 24th birthday in Australia when I started dancing. I settled temporarily in a bustling beach town at the edge of Melbourne and needed money to pay off my student debt. I considered a bar job, but decided to try stripping simply because it meant fewer hours.

When I walked into a club to ask for a job, to my surprise, I realized it was just a bar with the usual roles reversed: women approaching men. I was intrigued, but confused – how did they convince customers to spend money off-stage?

The manager looked at my petite frame and nervous smile, pointed her manicured hand to the dressing room and listed the rules: “Go get ready in there. You get one free drink. Don’t be late for stage. No sex. No drugs on the floor.” Simple enough, but nothing on how to monetize my time. I handed over my $40 house fee and walked into the sea of hairspray and naked bodies.

Hundreds of customers came and went during the 10-hour shift, sitting on plush couches and crowding around the bar. I approached 10 guys, mirroring my colleagues’ coy smiles, suggestive body language and light conversation starters, but I couldn’t tease out who wanted to spend. All but one dismissed me.

I sat at the bar to observe, sipping my free champagne. One dancer particularly stood out with her naturally frizzy curls and tattered black bra. She wasn’t the most glamorous, but every guy she spent more than a few minutes with agreed to get a lap dance, like she had sprinkled them with fairy dust. A few times, she walked away from customers within seconds, once even waving her hand in a man’s face to dismiss him.

From the bar, I saw her sitting alone on one of the upholstered couches that lined the back of the club. She was taking a moment’s respite after a dance to count her money before securing it around her wrist with an elastic band. I took a deep breath and approached her, brushing aside the fringe curtain separating the lap dance room from the bar. It was getting late, two hours before closing, and I was exhausted and frustrated. So far I’d brought in just $50, meaning a $10 profit after the house fee. I thought about packing up and never coming back, but I needed this to work out. My student loan wouldn’t magically go away.

She took one look at me and asked, “Your first time?”

“Yes. I’m struggling,” I said shyly.

She stared at me with a bored expression, so I got right to it.

“How do you know who wants to spend money?”

She turned around and outlined her lips with a beige pencil in the smudged mirror, advising in her Bulgarian accent: “I don’t always know, but here are a few things I’ve learned after five years in the industry: Don’t spend more than 10 minutes with them if they haven’t spent money. Five minutes if it’s busy. You’re not a free therapist. Make them pay big bucks if they want to dump their shit on you. Walk away from customers who want to get to know the ‘real you’ right away. They’re usually creeps.”

Before she left the lap dance area, she turned around and said, “And quit this nice girl bullshit. You sound like a child. Don’t try so hard to be someone you’re not, just be a hyped-up version of yourself.”

As she sauntered off, she looked back once more, “I’m Claire by the way.”

Her words wounded me, but I was impressed. She saw right through my mask. The rambling girl at my sister’s house was a distant memory, but, strangely, Claire must have seen who I was before I tried so hard to appear normal.

After we spoke, I didn’t reincarnate my older self, but I did carve another persona, Piper. I learned to showcase different parts of my persona based on the customer. It seemed practicing social skills paid off – I became a deft conversationalist, sometimes earning my night’s wage just from talking. I moved beyond the foundation I hid behind, laughing, smiling, and chatting more brazenly than before, enjoying eye contact with customers I trusted, dismissing ones I didn’t. Performing felt strangely comfortable, even though the job was foreign and challenging.

That conversation lasted minutes, but the advice made for a successful career. Slowly, Claire’s rules taught me how to read customers for signs of interest by attaching meaning to their words and actions, something most people learn unconsciously, but that I’d always struggled with.

The club gave me a controlled space to decipher the crinkle around people’s eyes for eagerness or raised eyebrow for arrogance, as if I was reading a script from a teleprompter. And when I was unsure, I had her original rules to catch me. Are they asking for my real name? Are they relaying problems in their life without buying a dance first? On the floor of the club, I spent hours practicing each weekend, and for the first time in my life, I learned how to cut through layers of language in real time, just like Claire, until it became effortless.

* * *

Eventually I moved back home to New York and started stripping full time. After two years of practicing by trial and error in the world’s most social job, the tricks I learned in the club seeped into my social life outside of work, and it got easier to notice social cues and use the same formula I used with customers to make small talk with anyone.

Most people I met outside of work told me I was a great listener, unaware of how much time I spent in my room practicing the correct reactions. I didn’t want anyone to know how much I struggled, so I let very few people get close to me – better than anyone finding out that I couldn’t really socialize, that I was a fake.

Nearly two years after I started dancing, my friend Sarah invited me to her birthday party. My least favorite social situation: a dinner party with unknown people. True, I was better at picking up more obvious cues like eagerness and anger, but group settings were strenuous – too many subtleties to keep track of. But I hadn’t seen my friend in a while and I missed her. I packed up my lace teddy and Red Bull into a discreet bag and headed over to the restaurant before work.

The hour and a half crawled by. There were six of us around a small table. I can’t remember the other people’s faces or even what anyone spoke about. I prayed no one would ask me personal questions.

“Sarah tells me you just got home from Amsterdam,” my friend’s brother said politely, turning in my direction. His words mixed in with the background conversation and it sounded like another language. I broke out in sweat.

“I am sorry, what?” I asked.

He repeated himself. A second later the words clicked. I smiled and looked at his nose instead of his eyes while chewing over my words and length of speech, trying to offer the version of my trip they wanted to hear.

Sarah got up to go to the bathroom. I quickly walked over to her and asked: “Were people bored when I spoke?”

“Not at all. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing. But I have to go. I’m sorry, I have work.”

She looked confused as I hurried out the door. I didn’t really have to go to the club. I’d made enough that week to warrant a night off with my friends, but work felt easier than this social performance. I let out a sigh of relief as the taxi plowed across the Williamsburg Bridge.

I walked under the familiar lights to the dressing room. I squirted a dollop of foundation on my hand and painted the dark circles under my eyes. For a brief second, I wondered, Is something wrong? Surely work shouldn’t be more comfortable than a night out? But then I swallowed those thoughts and walked onto the floor to escape from myself.

I sat down at the bar and ordered a Hennessy on the rocks. The birthday was successfully buried, and I was buzzing from the bliss of escape.

I spotted a man at the bar – alone, tall, bald with a kind smile and a glass of whiskey in his hand. I ran through the formula and we connected right away.

“Hennessy is a strong choice,” he commented.

“It’s an underrated drink.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Can I get you another one?”

Ten minutes passed. I suggested the private room and he agreed. The private rooms were where I connected with customers, sometimes in a way that was more intimate than my relationships outside the club.

There I massaged their shoulders, let them touch me, expressed vulnerability. I bantered for hours – something I was never able to do before. With fewer stimuli around, it was easier to focus and converse back and forth in a way that felt less strenuous than at the restaurant hours before.

“You have a strange rhythm about you,” he remarked, smiling as I cradled him. Customers who spent money like water didn’t care if I was odd; they wanted an experience. My weirdness was worth their paycheck.

After two hours, I excused myself for a moment to go to a bathroom where I got a message from Sarah: Miss you. Wish you didn’t have work. It’s not the same without you.

Below the message was a picture of the dinner crew, laughing with their arms wrapped around each other. I felt such a pang of loneliness and regret that I broke down in the doorless toilet stall, my eyeliner smearing like watercolor on canvas.

Why am I only alive at work? Why can I give so much of myself to my customers and so little to my friends? Maybe I was just being stupid because I was drunk, but I wanted to be an active participant in my life instead of walking around confused all the time, experiencing my days after they’ve happened, passive from the sidelines. I wanted connection.

Work was a temporary balm, but the interactions there were fleeting, not enough to sustain my longing for people. The force of my rotting loneliness hit like a tidal wave as the reality of how much I struggled to navigate social settings outside settled in.

I allowed myself just one sob before I fixed my face and performed for the last half hour. When I got home, I couldn’t get out of bed for days, my sheets disheveled with self-loathing.

Desperate for answers, I started scrolling through an online forum for women with ADHD, wondering if I might have an attention disorder, looking for an explanation. I started asking for advice, addressing some of my other issues first like getting lost in obsessive thought.

Within minutes, responses flooded that my symptoms resembled ASD.

“What is ASD?” I asked.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

I scoffed, but after I read articles on how autism manifests in women, there wasn’t room for doubt – the evidence was clearly outlined in the bullet points on my laptop.

Central to autism is a difficulty experiencing life in real time. Many autistic people can’t filter out information, which makes it difficult to zone in and focus. All those years, I couldn’t read people’s cues because I struggled to cancel out the world around me. At my sister’s house, the background music, the forks scraping on plates, the blue walls, all swam in front of people’s facial expressions.

But in the private rooms at the club, there were no outside stimuli. The rules were clear, the distractions minimal, so I could focus and interact.

Women in the ADHD forum invited me to the group for autistic women and there I saw myself a hundred times over. Scrolling through were women like me: sex workers, performers, artists, writers, all struggling to make sense of our invisible differences in our own socially awkward, wacky, and beautiful way.

I gradually pulled the blame away from myself and labeled the things about me that were naturally different, not defective. I stopped punishing myself when I got overwhelmed in conversations, stopped beating myself up when bright lights blanched out facial expressions and background noise canceled out people’s words. I took a deep breath and resisted pretending to listen and asked: “Can you say that again?” without apology. I forgave myself when I slipped outside of social norms and said something weird.

No more being sorry for things I can’t help. People would love me or not – frankly I was okay with the risk.

* * *

A few months later, I stood outside the club with a cigarette in my hand, looking over the busy highway at the deserted factories.

“Piper, you leaving?” my bouncer nudged in his Queens accent.

“Yes. I made enough tonight. I’m going out,” I said, smiling back at him.

He waited outside with me until Sarah pulled up in a rideshare.

“This is where you work?” she asked incredulously, her mouth ajar in the window of the car.

I laughed. She knew I was a stripper but had never been to the club. From the outside, it looked grim: tattered brown building on the edge of town. But it was home to me.

“I never said stripping was glamorous.”

I kept the window open as the club disappeared, letting the cold air whip my face, feeling a mixture of relief and excitement. Forums for autistic women advised pulling off masks that many develop to pass as non-autistic. The effects of camouflaging are toxic, they warned. I wasn’t sure I could go back to who I was. The rambling autistic girl at my sister’s house was dead, buried under years of performance.

“Did you have a good night?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah. I’m ready for a night off though.”

Who could I have been if I didn’t try so hard to pass? I’ll never know, but stripping provided a portal to who I might be without fear of rejection – a rare glimpse of the affectionate, brash, and funky edges of personality. But I still had so much to learn. There was vast, dormant space to grow into beyond my work persona.

The twinkling lights opened the doors to Manhattan, my body still moving from the music of the club. The possibilities of the night unrolled in front of me and I intended to savor them.

Memoir

My Roommate the Prostitute

At first, the quiet girl from Craigslist seemed like a great match—we had just the occasional tangle over cats and cleanup. And then the men started coming over.

It was late morning, and I was putting up a fresh pot of coffee when I heard the first meow. It sounded awfully close, as if from inside the apartment instead of the backyard one story down. Then I heard it again, and there was no doubt.

WTF?!! I texted my roommate. You got a cat?!

I’d made it clear when she moved in: no pets. “But I want a kitty so bad,” she said a couple weeks later. I suffer from allergies — through spring and summer I have a persistent itch in my nostrils, and the lightest bit of pollen or dander or even a freshly mowed lawn sets off sneezing spells that leave my entire body sore. I was also concerned about the smell. And besides, the landlord forbade pets.

It’s a friend’s, Jenny texted back. I’m only taking care of it for a few months.

Don’t give me that bullshit, I keyed my reply, then backspaced over it, reconsidering. I have a tendency to overreact, to exacerbate conflict. Instead I went for calm and firm, and maybe slightly paternal.

We need to talk.

Later that afternoon, in the kitchen between our bedrooms, we talked, leaning on opposite counters. Jenny (not her real name) kept her eyes downcast, and when I told her she was being inconsiderate and disrespectful and this was not the way grown-ups behaved, she said, “I know. I’m sorry.” I’d expected an argument, but her posture was one of submission, as if I was her dad, or a schoolteacher. But I wasn’t her dad, and she was an adult woman, even if I was twice her age. I was left somewhat unsettled.

In the end, I told her she could keep the cat, but she better take care of it properly.

“Thanks for not being hard on me,” she said, before disappearing back into her room. “I thought you were going to kick me out or something.”

That conversation was the longest we’d ever had. We were unlikely roommates, a Craigslist arrangement: I, a near-middle-aged man, several years divorced, with adolescent children of my own. She, a twenty-year-old recent college grad. We were living in Gravesend, an unremarkable neighborhood in a remote part of Brooklyn, where restaurants, bars and coffee shops are scarce, and when the friend I’d been living with moved out, finding a new roommate wasn’t easy.

At first, I had a parade of eccentrics, men who seemed to have something to hide, smelling of whiskey, with slurred speech, crooked teeth, telling me about jobs as investment bankers or corporate accountants, claims I found dubious. One man, a flashy young Georgian, took one look at the room and grew alarmingly aggressive as he tried to force his cash deposit into my hand, even after I explained that I wasn’t ready to make a decision just yet. He left just as I was about to call the cops.

So when Jenny showed up, I was inclined to like her. She looked like a typical post-college young woman: hair dyed reddish-blond, large earmuff headphones over her ears. She walked with a kind of childish languor, as if it hadn’t fully settled in that she was an adult. Her speech tended to the monosyllabic.

I showed her the room.

“Sweet,” she said.

I showed her the bathroom.

“Sweet.”

Then she asked what she needed for moving in, and I told her: proof of employment, credit report, rent plus security deposit.

“Sweet,” she said.

I assumed this meant she had all those things, and at first, it appeared that she did. She told me she worked two jobs, as a clerk in a stationary store in Midtown Manhattan and as an art-school model. Several days later, she brought documents attesting to her claims, and it all seemed to check out. She moved in a couple weeks later, with the help of her dad, whom I found affable in a way that put me further at ease. Some time after she moved in, I met her boyfriend, who seemed about my age. “He’s an artist,” she told me afterward, unsolicited, as if that explained something.

I did have some mild concerns. I wondered why she would choose to live here — a part of town where she had no friends or family — and with me, a man twice her age. But I needed a roommate, and for the most part, she matched my criteria: stable enough to pay rent, normal enough not to stab me with a kitchen knife or steal my meager possessions. She wanted to be a writer and filmmaker, she said, and was hoping to get into NYU’s film school for graduate studies. There was something familiar about her, almost bland, like an unremarkable extra who might appear repeatedly in so many movies, which meant she was safe and normal and predictable — exactly what I needed if I was to share my home with a stranger.

It was soon after the cat incident that I began to notice she was home more. In fact, she rarely seemed to leave her room. On days I worked from home, I’d hear her throughout the day, in short bursts of action — the turning of the microwave at ten, the fridge opening and closing at eleven, the doorbell with her lunch order at noon. It didn’t bother me; I barely caught glimpses of her. If she’d lost her jobs, it didn’t show so far: She was always on time with rent, and she appeared to have enough money to buy groceries and order in meals. But I wondered, if she wasn’t going to work, how was she supporting herself?

One afternoon, a couple weeks after Jenny took in the cat, I heard her voice and then a male voice I did not recognize. It was definitely not her boyfriend, whose voice was high-pitched; this one was deep, almost gruff. I was in my room, working, and I heard someone enter the bathroom, and then the toilet flush, and so I opened my door a crack for a glance. In the hallway, emerging from the bathroom, was a short, squat man, gray-haired with a bald temple. The man disappeared into Jenny’s room across the hall, and I felt a rush in my brain and gave an involuntary gasp.

There weren’t too many scenarios for why a young woman would be entertaining a vaguely Soviet-looking gentleman who looked to be about her father’s age. I felt a kind of indescribable rage, almost like a personal affront.

How dare she — in my home?!

An hour later, I watched her escort the man to the door. She was wearing blue suede pumps and a very short, ivory-colored dress, somewhat crumpled, as if she’d just removed it from under a pile of laundry. She appeared to be going for a sultry, long-legged look, but she looked instead like a little girl wearing her mother’s discarded clothes. I felt instantly sad for her, and part of me wondered if I shouldn’t offer to help her somehow. Another part of me was so angry I wanted to evict her immediately. The rest of the day, I wrestled with my thoughts, my mind feverish with indecision: Should I say something? Should I tell her boyfriend? Should I call her dad? Was it any of my business anyway?

I decided to wait, see if it happened again, and just a few days later, it did. This time, it was a tall black man wearing an ill-fitting suit and tie, like thrift-shop formalwear. He, too, emerged from the bathroom and disappeared into her room, and after an hour or so she escorted him to the door, again in the blue pumps and rumpled ivory dress.

I took to Google: What to do if my roommate is a prostitute?

More than what to do, I was seeking clarity on why it bothered me. Who was I to judge if Jenny chose an unorthodox profession? Why would I care if she used her room to ply her trade? Still, I couldn’t stomach the thought, and the Internet validated my discomfort. On Yahoo Answers and in Google Groups and various other forums people wrote about similar experiences, and the consensus was: Don’t let your roommate turn tricks within your home. It’s dangerous, it’s illegal, and it can bring nothing but trouble.

I wondered about the practical aspects of her work: Does she have a Backpage ad? Did she use Craigslist? Could I find her on The Erotic Review?

I imagined the conversation we’d have. “This isn’t a brothel!” I wanted to yell at her. “Where do you even find these guys?” Then I reconsidered, thinking I might speak to her in a more caring way. Sit her down for a talk. Maybe get some women’s organization involved. Point her in the right direction. Rescue her.

* * *

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when we met in the kitchen the next afternoon, passing between the refrigerator and the trashcan by the sink, I decided to bring it up. I was washing a dish, the water running lightly, and she was behind me, waiting for something in the microwave.

“I’ve been seeing some strange men around here,” I said.

She turned slowly to face me, nonchalant, with a thin smile. “What?” she asked. I was certain she’d heard me.

“I’ve been seeing strange men around here,” I said again.

“Oh, yeah.” She had a self-satisfied look, as if she was taunting me: What are you going to do about it? This was not what I’d expected. She’d been remorseful about the cat, and so I’d imagined a repeat.

“Friends of yours?” I asked, hiding my indignation, though I hoped she’d pick up on my mocking tone.

“Yeah,” she said. After a pause, as if realizing something, she added, “I’m friends with some older guys.” She took a sip of water from a glass in her hand, without breaking eye contact. “They’re harmless.”

Harmless. Was that an acknowledgment that they were not, in fact, “friends?”

She offered no further explanations, and we both retreated to our rooms. If at first I’d thought to treat her kindly, I was no longer inclined to. I’d given her the chance to explain. I had offered: Let us, as adults, discuss this situation. In return, she took me for a fool. I’m friends with some older guys. The words infuriated me, and I began to plot her eviction.

Several days passed, however, and still I did nothing. Then, one evening, I was out with a woman I’d recently begun dating. We had just finished dinner at a SoHo restaurant, paid the check, and were about to head to her place when my phone rang. It was my landlord.

“Somebody call 911,” she said. “Police, ambulance. I don’t know what’s happen.” My landlord is Chinese, and I often have a hard time understanding her, but her tone told me all I needed to know. There was trouble at the apartment. “You come home now,” she commanded.

Was Jenny hurt? My thoughts went to the men. I knew this couldn’t end well.

My date raised an eyebrow to me. “Give me a sec,” I said. We were outside the restaurant, in the cool night air on a quiet street, a jittery yellow cab passing over the uneven cobblestone.

I texted Jenny: Everything ok? Landlord says someone called 911.

The response came a few seconds later.

this is kaylee shes dead

I stared at that text, uncomprehending. I didn’t know anyone named Kaylee.

Who’s dead? Who are you? Call me.

A few minutes later, my phone rang with Jenny’s number, and a young woman told me she was Jenny’s best friend. Jenny was dead. She had been dead, in fact, for the past twenty-four hours, in her bed, in our apartment. Kaylee, whose tone was so completely lacking in inflection she sounded almost robotic, told me she’d grown alarmed when Jenny didn’t respond to her texts and phone calls, and so she came by the apartment and convinced the landlord to let her in.

“Probably an overdose,” she said.

My thoughts in those moments would later seem incongruous with the event itself, but at the time they were automatic, a cascading stream of impolitic ponderings. Mostly I was relieved that I’d been spared the task of evicting her, and was now desperately hoping that my evening would not be spoiled any further.

I hung up the phone and looked at my date, who was gripping my arm and staring.

“My roommate’s dead,” I said.

My date reacted as I expected. “Oh, my god! Are you O.K.?”

Of course I was O.K. The fact that my roommate was dead was unsettling, and I was somewhat shaken, but I wasn’t sad, or feeling any grief-related emotions. Mostly I was just annoyed that her death was getting in the way of my evening plans. Jenny and I had lived together for four months, but I barely knew her. Kaylee? A friend? I didn’t know Jenny had friends. An overdose? An overdose of what?

I called my landlord, and told her what I had learned: roommate’s dead, body is still in the house. No, she need not worry about a thing. The police will take care of it all. I was out of town, I said — not a lie, although not entirely the truth either. I’d be back in the morning, and get a new roommate in the coming days. There’d be no problem with the rent.

My date gripped my arm tighter, as if the news of death created some erotic charge, at once frightening and gripping, and we went off together to her apartment a few blocks away.

* * *

In the morning I took the subway home, and remembered: My roommate was dead. It felt surreal, and I found myself ruminating on the nature of death, and youth, and the way we often know so little about the people living just several feet away from us. I thought back to what I’d done the day before: got myself breakfast, worked, then lunch, then anticipated my date in the evening. I’d been annoyed that Jenny had left dirty dishes in the sink and a half-eaten chocolate bar on the kitchen counter for two days straight.

When I got home, the door to Jenny’s room was sealed with a strip of police tape. I also discovered that in addition to the cat, she’d had two large white rats, which I found sitting in tall mesh cages in another room, probably moved there by the cops. It appeared that someone had taken the cat.

Later in the afternoon, my phone rang.

“Hi Shulem, it’s Steve.” There was a pause. “Jenny’s dad.”

I felt momentarily caught off balance. Until that moment, I had imagined that Jenny’s death would affect very few people. She had seemed like a rootless child, unattached, unaffected. I knew she had parents, a little sister, extended family somewhere, but I knew so little about them they were almost unreal to me. Her entire life seemed confined to her room across the hallway, as if she mattered to no one but herself.

“I am so sorry, I am so terribly sorry.” The words tumbled out clumsily, lame and ineffectual. “I was so shocked. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. I am so, so terribly sorry. This must be so devastating.”

I could hear him sniffling on the other end of the line. “She was a sad girl, Shulem.”

A sad girl? There were the signs, of course. And yet, she’d always seemed vaguely chipper, even after I’d started seeing the men come by.

It was heroin, Steve told me. Her boyfriend, who was an addict, had introduced it to her. Steve thought she must’ve been using for only a couple weeks. He asked if I’d noticed any changes recently, and I told him that I hadn’t.

“Jenny’s aunt will come by to collect some of her things,” he said. “We know Jenny wrote some poetry, so maybe we can find it on her computer.” He paused, then said: “I’m really sorry you have to deal with this.”

When I hung up, I felt guilty for feeling as unmoved as I did. I sat at the desk in my room, a blast of cold air from the air conditioning hitting my face, and thought about Jenny’s death, disturbed that I didn’t feel something more. This was a young woman, just beginning adult life, who’d lived with me for four months, and when I had heard she was dead, my strongest emotion was annoyance. Her father, at the same time, seemed to expect exactly that. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. As if he knew that someone like me would be affected only by the trouble of it all.

* * *

Over the next few days, I checked Jenny’s Facebook page, and was surprised by the outpouring of grief from friends — dozens and dozens of them — who’d tagged her name and wrote messages on her “wall,” in the language of tweeting, text-messaging millennials.

rip jenny (tear-face smiley)

cant believe shes gone i loved that girl

omg why???????

Here were people reminiscing about her, friends writing about the time she helped someone with a college essay, or about high school adventures, or that time they got passed-out drunk and high on that crazy spring break trip.

Two days later, her aunt came.

“This is the biggest nightmare of our lives,” she said, and then she, too, apologized that I’ve had to deal with it all. The aunt packed up some of Jenny’s things — her computer and a handful of personal items. She packed some of her clothes into a few large trash bags. “I think I’ll take these to the Salvation Army,” she said.

Still, out of the entire collection of Jenny’s possessions, she left most of it, a room full of belongings, and told me to throw it all in the trash. I stood in the room afterward, looking around at the things that make up a person’s life, but now no longer mattered. The bed that was ordered online just four months ago. The easy chair Jenny had brought from her childhood home in Westchester. A bunch of keys on a key ring, a bracelet of blue beads, a MetroCard, a bag of cosmetics. Things that, just three days ago, Jenny might’ve thought important, but now, poof — so inconsequential.

Later, I stood in the middle of her empty room, after I’d emptied the closets, swept and mopped the floor, and cleared out all her things. It looked just like it had before she moved in: bare, clean, uninhabited but inviting. I closed the door to look behind it, and noticed a taped-up card, from HashtagThePlanet.com: it hurts now. but it will get better. i promise.

It amazed me how quickly a person’s life could be dismantled, all these concrete physical objects discarded or recycled. I thought about how our physical possessions are like phantom lives: You can go into a person’s room and look at her bed, her desk, the flip-flops in the corner, the little trashcan with the empty coffee cup and dirty tissues, and almost see a living being, by the effects of one. But then, these things are collected, dispersed, in a kind of parallel death — three days, and a healthy young woman’s presence is scraped clean off the planet.

I left the note on the door, and kept a few of Jenny’s things for myself: a small hammer, a pack of AAA batteries. A lamp. Her easy chair. It made me sad, but I had little use for the rest, and ended up putting most of it out with the trash. There it all lay, right by the curb, plastic storage bins and large trash bags filled with the effects of Jenny’s everyday life; the contents of her drawers and closets, whatever her aunt had left — bed linen, hair accessories, underwear, a blanket and some pillows, a bright red blow dryer. The stuff sat on the edge of the sidewalk for a day or two, and through the window I watched as people passed, glancing at the items. Some stopped to pick through them, holding up items for inspection, taking what they pleased, until the pile was about half the original size. Then the trash collectors came and tossed it all into the monster-mouth of their truck, until nothing was left but a shattered light bulb that slipped out of one of the bags, now spread in tiny bits of glass among the fallen leaves of a nearby honeysuckle tree.

Hidden History

This Black Woman Was Once the Biggest Star in Jazz. Here’s Why You’ve Never Heard of Her.

Hazel Scott was a piano prodigy who wowed the worlds of music, TV and film. But when she stood up for her rights, the establishment took her down.

On a rainy September morning in 1950, jazz pianist Hazel Scott stood in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee hoping to clear her name.

The publication “Red Channels” had accused Scott — along with 150 other cultural figures — of communist sympathies. Failure to respond would be seen as an admission of guilt. But her appearance at HUAC had a greater purpose than personal exoneration. She believed she had a responsibility to stem the tide of paranoia that gained momentum by the day.

She told the committee’s members, “Mudslinging and unverified charges are just the wrong ways to handle this problem.” With the same poise she brought to the stage as a musician, she testified that “what happens to me happens to others and it is part of a pattern which could spread and really damage our national morale and security.”

Chin up, shoulders back, she warned against “profiteers in patriotism who seek easy money and notoriety at the expense of the nation’s security and peace of mind,” and that continuing down this road would transform America’s artists from a “loyal troupe of patriotic, energetic citizens ready to give their all for America” into a “wronged group whose creative value has been destroyed.”

Speaking with a voice that simultaneously conveyed clarity and nuance, strength and warmth, she knew what she was doing. She had been rehearsing for this moment her entire life.

* * *

Born in Trinidad, Scott was raised on music. Her whole family played and her mother, Alma, an aspiring concert pianist, taught music to help make ends meet. Unbeknownst to her family, Hazel Scott absorbed everything she heard until one day she woke her grandmother from a nap by playing a familiar hymn on the piano, two-handed and with perfect pitch. Her grandmother woke thinking, not wrongly, that she was witnessing a miracle.

Hazel Scott at the age of three or four.

Scott’s arc was fixed in the stars from that moment on. At three years old, she played parties, churches, and gatherings. But economic opportunity was hard to come by, and when her parents’ marriage fell apart in 1923, her mother decided she and Scott would emigrate to New York City.

Scott grocery shopped, prepared meals, and handled the household’s money. When word got around that, in her house, a child paid the bills, a gang of white teenagers broke in and demanded money. Scott refused to give them any. They beat her black and blue, and Scott still refused to turn over the cash. Finally, as police sirens grew nearer, the boys ran off with her blood on their hands.

Another time, Scott was playing near the trench being dug for the subway line that would become the A train when, according to Scott, a white girl from the neighborhood who she had been playing with told her to “Turn around so that I can brush you off and send you to school.” When she did, the girl pushed her into the trench.

The workmen who rescued Scott had the unmistakable look of “fear and guilt” in their eyes. “They, too, were white,” Scott later wrote in her journal. “They had witnessed the horrible act. They were involved and they resented it and me.”

Scott resolved never to be so naïve again — nor did she allow the incident to dictate her life.

She kept playing piano, kept stunning audiences, and impressed one person in particular. The story sounds more like legend than fact, but several sources, including Scott’s journal and the accounts of the parties involved, confirm it.

German-born, wearing a meticulous goatee and a pocket watch, and steeped in the traditions of European classical music, Juilliard founder Frank Damrosch was the very model of high culture in New York City. As such, his blood began to boil when he heard someone in the audition room improvising over Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Major.” Marching down the hall to confront the blasphemer brash enough to attempt such a thing, he heard the ninths being substituted with the sixths. It was sacrilege, he thought, until he saw who was playing.

Since eight-year-old Scott’s hands couldn’t reach the piece’s intervals, she played the sixths to make it sound the way she intuitively knew it should. No one taught her how to do this. She wrote: “I was only reaching for the closest thing that sounded like it, not even knowing what a sixth was at that age.”

When she finished, the auditions director whispered, “I am in the presence of a genius.” Damrosch agreed and Scott was admitted to Juilliard. But her real education wasn’t in the classroom. It was in her living room.

In New York, Alma quickly became a successful jazz musician and befriended some of the Harlem Renaissance’s brightest stars in the process. In turn, they shone on young Hazel. She sat beside ragtime legend Fats Waller — whom she called “Uncle” — at the piano, while his hands strode syncopated rhythms across the keys. Piano legend Art Tatum became a close family friend and mentor to Hazel, advising her to dive deep into the blues.

Meanwhile Hazel’s mother, Alma, bought a brownstone on West 118th Street, opened a Chinese restaurant on the ground floor, and taught herself to play tenor sax. Her circle widened. Lester Young and Billie Holiday came over after hours. Young and Alma traded turns playing sax in the living room when she and Holiday weren’t gossiping in the kitchen. Holiday became like a big sister to Hazel, taking her under her wing as Hazel ventured out into the life of a working musician. In an article she wrote for Ebony, Hazel Scott recalled how, once, when “wondering where I was going and what I was doing, I began to cry.” Holiday then “stopped, gripped my arm and dragged me to a back room.” She told Scott, “Never let them see you cry” — a piece of advice Scott followed forever.

While still a child, Hazel Scott played piano for dance classes and churches. At 13 she joined her mother’s jazz band, Alma Long Scott’s American Creolians. When she outgrew the gig, her mother secured her a spot playing piano after the Count Basie Orchestra at the posh Roseland Ballroom. Watching Basie bring the house down, Hazel turned to Alma and said, “You expect me to follow this?” Stage fright or no, she played what would become her signature boogie-woogie style. The crowd adored her. From there, she took flight.

* * *

At the time, the majority of jazz clubs were segregated. Even the famed Cotton Club in Harlem, where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway headlined, had a “colored” section. Blacks and whites almost never shared the stage. But in 1938, a shoe clerk from Trenton, New Jersey, opened a different kind of club.

Pianists (L-R) Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Hazel Scott, Duke Ellington, and Mel Powell gathered around the piano at Cafe Society.

Cafe Society was “the wrong place for the Right people” according to founder Barney Josephson. He once said, “I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.” It was there that Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” for the first time and became a legend, and it was there that Holiday got Scott her first steady engagement.

When Holiday canceled a standing engagement three weeks early, she insisted Scott take her place. By the end of the run, Scott was Cafe Society’s new headliner. Only 19 years old, she inherited the bench previously occupied by piano greats like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. But as The New York Amsterdam News reported, “Hazel more than holds her own, and demonstrates a style all her own.”

 

As it turned out, not only was Scott a brilliant pianist, she also had a hell of a voice: deep and sonorous, comforting yet provocative — the sort of singing style that makes you want to embrace the sublime melancholy that is love and life and whiskey on a midwinter’s night.

Scott at the age of nineteen.

And, she was beautiful. She wore floor-length ball gowns on stage and gazed out into the audience with almond-shaped eyes that seemed to communicate a deep knowledge of everyone they fixed upon. Like watching a painter paint or a sculptor sculpt, when Scott sang, you saw the song traveling through her, taking shape before emerging from her lips. And when she played her boogie-woogie, she grinned ear to ear, looking like self-possessed joy manifested. She was, in a word, irresistible.

Audiences flocked to see her. Fan mail flooded in. Josephson decided to open a second Cafe Society location, uptown for a swankier audience, with Scott as the marquee performer. New York’s finest showed up in droves, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who dropped in one evening for “some entertainment and relaxation,” as one reporter wrote. After the show, Mrs. Roosevelt asked Scott to join her for a late supper. Because she had already changed from her evening wear to streetwear, Scott begged off the invitation.

“I’m inviting you,” said Mrs. Roosevelt, “not your clothes.”

How could Scott refuse?

She was the reigning queen of jazz, a friend to some of the most famous names in the country, and all at just 22 years old.

Hazel Scott had conquered New York. Hollywood was next. But in a motion picture industry where people of color were usually restricted to playing maids, cannibals, or buffoons, was there room for Hazel Scott?

* * *

Nine black soldiers march down a hill to the sound of piano and drum. They are upright, dignified, ready to fight and die. Their sweethearts line the road, waving handkerchiefs and bidding their fellows goodbye. It’s 1943, and the question on the backlot is, “What should these women wear?”

The scene is from “The Heat’s On,” a patriotic 1943 musical. Scott is performing a rah-rah number called “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” In conceptualizing the scene, the director intended to dress the women in what Hollywood assumed all black women would wear: dirty aprons.

Scott wasn’t having it. Her contract always included final script and wardrobe approval, ensuring she’d never play or look the fool. She told the choreographer she wanted that protection extended to the extras who shared her stage.

“What do you care?” said the choreographer. “You’re beautifully dressed.”

“The next thing I knew,” wrote Scott, “we were screaming at each other and all work had stopped. … I insisted that no scene in which I was involved would display Black women wearing dirty aprons to send their men to die for their country.”

Neither side relented, so Scott went on strike. For three days, the studio begged and pleaded for her to return to set. But Scott would not be moved. The more the clock ticked, the more money it cost, a fact of which Scott was well aware. Finally, the studio caved to Scott’s demands, and the women appear in the film wearing particularly fetching floral dresses.

 

Though she won the battle, Columbia Pictures was far from conceding the war. In the minds of producers who were used to dictating to African-Americans — particularly to African-American women — Scott’s public victory was more than they could stand. In the next two years, she was given small parts in two more second-rate movies. After that, she was finished with motion pictures.

“I had antagonized the head of Columbia Pictures,” wrote Scott in her journal. “In short, committed suicide!”

She packed her bags and headed back east — where love was about to sweep her off her feet.

* * *

Scott was once again wowing crowds at Cafe Society, when she caught the eye of a young politician. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., soon to become New York’s first African-American congressman, pulled Josephson aside, and asked for an introduction.

“Are you really interested in Hazel,” said Josephson, who considered Scott a daughter, “or are you just screwing around?”

Congressman Adam Powell and wife, Hazel Scott, pose for a White House Christmas greeting, circa 1946.

Powell assured him of his sincerity, Josephson made the introduction, and their romance caught fire — despite the fact that Powell had been married to nightclub singer Isabel Washington since 1933. For the next year, Scott and Powell pursued their love with reckless abandon, damned be the consequences. In 1945, he married Scott 11 short days after his divorce was finalized.

Her career in Hollywood dead, Scott started touring, winning rave reviews at concerts across the country and fighting discrimination throughout. In November 1948, she refused to play a sold-out show at the University of Texas because the audience was segregated, despite the anti-Jim Crow clause in her contract, which allowed her to cancel the booking without forfeiting her pay. And in February 1949, she sued a restaurant in the tiny town of Pasco, Washington, after she and a companion were refused service because, as the proprietor put it, “We don’t serve coloreds.” Scott won $250 in the suit, and donated the proceeds to the NAACP.

Scott was making around $75,000 a year during this time — making her one of the most successful musicians in the country, black or white. After five years’ continued success, Hollywood could ignore her no longer. In 1950, she came to break the color barrier on the small screen.

* * *

Scott sits at the keys of a grand piano in an elegant white gown. With a backdrop of Manhattan behind her, she looks like the urban empress she had become.

“Hello,” she coos, “I’m Hazel Scott.”

Broadcast on the DuMont Network, The Hazel Scott Show was the first television program to have an African-American woman as its solo host. Three nights a week, Scott played her signature mix of boogie-woogie, classics, and jazz standards in living rooms across America. It was a landmark moment. As a passionate civil and women’s rights activist, the show symbolized a triumphant accomplishment. As a career musician, her program took her to professional heights known by few, assuring her place in the pantheon of America’s greatest performers. To be sure, Scott had arrived at the success she had sought since playing that first simple tune in Trinidad as a three-year-old.

And then, just like that, it all came tumbling down. “Red Channels.” HUAC. Another star tainted by a whiff of Communism.

Hazel defends herself before the House Un-American Activities Committee, September 1950.

When she stood in front of HUAC, it only made sense to speak truth to power, to stand up for what she believed in. She believed herself the embodiment of the American dream, and she spoke in its defense. In an unwavering voice she told the committee, “the entertainment profession has done its part for America, in war and peace, and it must not be dragged through the mud of hysterical name-calling at a moment when we need to enrich and project the American way of life to the world. There is no better, more effective, more easily understood medium for telling and selling the American way of life than our entertainers, creative artists, and performers, for they are the real voice of America.”

But they did not hear her, did not believe her. And she in turn underestimated the power of fear, never having bent to it herself.

One week after her testimony, DuMont canceled The Hazel Scott Show. Concert appearances became few and far between. Even nightclub gigs were hard to come by.

Exhausted and unraveled, Scott went to Paris on what was to be a three-week vacation. Her sojourn extended to three years. To her, Paris became “the magic of looking up the Champs-Élysées from the Place de la Concorde and being warmed by the merry madness of the lights.” It was also “a much needed rest, not from work, but from racial tension.”

She played across Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East. Crowds still loved her, still swooned over her swinging classics. But it was not the same. Her spotlight had dimmed, and would never again shine on her the way it had in her halcyon days.

Eventually, Scott returned to America and slipped further into obscurity. In 1981 she passed away at 61 from cancer. Her albums are hard to come by now and her name never appears where it should, beside Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and others who we think of when we think of jazz. But for a while, she led them all, until a country twisted by fear pushed her past the point from which even she, the force of nature that she was, could return.

Memoir

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.

Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance
Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a (1) lapdance
$100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.

When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.

I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.

“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.

* * *

I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.

Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.

I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.

The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.

I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.

I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.

* * *

I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.

He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.

Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.

When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.

“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.

“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”

I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”

“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.

It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.

“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”

He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.

I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.

My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.

“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”

“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”

“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.

“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?

I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.

While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.

I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.

“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!

Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.

Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”

Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.

Renegades

How a Brutal Mafia Enforcer Became a Deadly Serious Marathoner

One of the Mumbai underworld’s most feared gunmen, Rahul Jadhav spent years running from the law. Now he runs for absolution.

Rahul Jadhav struggles to put pen to paper. He’s in a rehab program at an addiction center, sitting on the last bench in the back of the room, and his counselor has asked the class of 30 addicts to draw two columns on their sheets: “strengths” and “vices.” Jadhav is quick to list his cardinal sins: lust, greed, envy, pride and wrath. But when it’s time to consider his strengths, answers evade him. He knows he was good with a 9 millimeter pistol, and an ace at extorting hundreds of thousands of rupees from real estate developers at gunpoint, but those skills can’t be listed.

“Running,” he says, when the counselor, Habiba Jetha calls on him. “I’m good at running.”

“Great,” encourages Jetha, “Do you have any experience?”

“Some,” he hesitates. When the counselor assures him he can drop his guard, Jadhav turns his gaze to the floor. “I run when I’m chased. I have experience running from cops, from the people I shot at, and from rival gang members. The farthest I’ve run is two kilometers — after I fired at a few policemen and bystanders while threatening a real estate developer in Mumbai.”

In Jadhav that day, Jetha saw a frail outlaw whose troubles went beyond alcohol and drugs. She saw a former gangster who was pissed at the world for not taking him back and for not rescuing him from his mistakes. So she suggested he train for a marathon.

“I knew running would be a good outlet for his many frustrations. He could express his anger through running,” says Jetha. “I wanted him to sweat that rage out so he could truly reform.”

In 2016, Jadhav ran in a 10-kilometer race, completing the course in 55 minutes — a respectable time — and found that running for distance is more pleasurable than running for one’s life. He now runs about 20 kilometers a day, has run the Mumbai marathon, and once ran from Mumbai to Pune — a distance of 150 kilometers (93 miles) — in two days. His proudest record, and one he wants to improve on, is 63 kilometers in six hours.

“The current world record is 100 kilometers in six hours. I want to beat that one day,” he smiles, as he sits on a promenade watching the sun set over Mumbai — a city he once terrorized.

* * *

Jadhav grew up in Dombivli, a city on the outskirts of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. During his university years, he met his first and only girlfriend — a shy, soft-spoken girl, who he wished to marry. But the girl’s father, who saw Jadhav struggling to finish his bachelor’s degree, got his daughter married to another man.

“That was the first time I felt this uncontainable rage,” Jadhav says. “That’s when I decided I’ll never allow anyone to make me feel this helpless again. I would be the one in command.”

Soon after, the 21-year-old dropped out of college. Looking for easy money, he met a gunman for the Mumbai mafia who lived in his apartment complex. Charming and determined, Jadhav managed to get a meeting with the local don and an entry-level job in one of India’s many booming industries: extortion.

“It was bad company,” says his father, Ramakant Jadhav. “He had always been a good student, and I’d hoped he’d become a chartered accountant one day. But he started mingling with local goons from the neighborhood, which paved the way for his foray into the world of crime.”

Rahul Jadhav at Marine Lines, South Mumbai, in May 2018.

Jadhav began working as a bag man in the hawala department, an informal money transfer system that skirted regular banking channels to ensure the gangsters always had cash on hand. When the money arrived, Jadhav’s job was to dole it out.

“It was easy money,” says Jadhav. “The don calls you. You go to the designated spot, meet the operator, exchange code names, get the money, and deliver it at the addresses given to you. For every 10 lakh [$14,500] I collected and distributed, I would make at least one.”

Jadhav stuck to hawala distributions until 2000, when his father, hoping to encourage his son to “stop loitering in the streets,” convinced him to take a computer course. The internet was still new to India, and Jadhav was keen to exploit it to enhance his criminal résumé. He joined a private class, and came out with invaluable data — names and contact numbers for every real estate developer in Mumbai. Impressed with the findings, the don “promoted” him. Jadhav would now make extortion calls.

“Unlike many others in the underworld,” he says, “I was very quick to develop a sixth sense — I could tell who would pay, and who wouldn’t; who could be convinced over phone, and who required violence.”

Across hundreds of calls the next year, Jadhav was able to extract millions of Indian rupees for his boss. He liked the work, and he was good at it, but the organization needed something more. In 2004, Jadhav’s boss confessed a problem: a shortage of gunmen.

“They’re not loyal anymore,” he said. “Worse, they’ve grown tongues — asking for more money.”

Without a thought, Jadhav agreed to graduate to the “obvious next level.” His work had got him closer to the boss, which, in turn, made him feel indestructible. He was confident that if he was arrested or if rival gangs ever came for his blood, the don would do everything to shield him.

Jadhav picked nine of his friends, all unemployed youths from his neighborhood, and molded them into a gang. When he paid calls on real estate developers, his friends would back him up — or go out on calls by themselves, paying part of the profits back to him.

“It was the lure of money which drew us,” says one friend who does not wish to be identified. “While some of us would accompany Rahul to the shootouts, others would conduct [reconnaissance] before Rahul could fire at his victim and stood waiting with getaway motorbikes after he was done, while a few others stayed stationed at the spot to gauge the victim’s reaction. The reaction, in these instances, is of extreme importance, especially when the rounds are fired in public spaces. We have to be sure that the victim was scared; else, he wouldn’t cough up the money we want from him.”

“It was a good life,” Jadhav says. “I would spend thousands of rupees on my friends, and would drink the best scotch. I was getting addicted to alcohol and hashish, but I didn’t mind that. They made the shootouts easier.”

He fired his gun often, but only rarely did he shoot to kill. Mostly, he says, he made threats. If a developer was reluctant to pay money owed, Jadhav would discharge a few rounds in the office — breaking a pane of glass or shooting into the ceiling. Usually that worked. When it didn’t, things could get out of hand.

* * *

One day in November 2006, Jadhav woke up with a hangover. In order to get rid of it, he drank another three shots of whiskey. He could afford being drunk — his only job for the day was to survey the office of a real estate developer, who he was scheduled to fire at the following day.

Around 11 a.m. Jadhav and an accomplice reached his victim’s office; however, just before the duo was about to enter the premises, their boss called for a sudden change in the plan. They would have to shoot at the builder the same day.

“I was hesitant at first, but I went ahead anyway,” says Jadhav. “I walked to the developer’s cabin, handed him a piece of paper with my boss’s name and number, and ordered him to pay the extortion money we had been asking of him. Of course, I had to shoot at him — that would make sure he would pay up. I took an aim at his chest, while my accomplice shot at his stomach.”

With two critical wounds, the developer collapsed. Jadhav and his cohort rushed out of the office.

Since the shootout was unplanned, Jadhav did not have a getaway vehicle waiting for him. As the security guard chased after them, the duo ran through the streets of Dombivli, rushing to get to the railway station.

“When I turned around, I saw there were several people chasing after us — the guard, a couple of locals, a few bikers, and even a police patrol van,” he says. “I fired a few rounds at the bikers and locals, ensuring the crowd was discouraged. Soon, I was able to stop an auto rickshaw, and threatened the driver at gunpoint. He drove as fast as he could, and dropped us at the station. We then entered a nearby bar, called our boss, and informed him the job was done.”

Such days made him a prime target for the local police, who, in one of the complaints against Jadhav, cited him as a criminal involved in “many serious offences,” and one who “always carries firearms.” But Jadhav insists he never killed anyone, and says that despite the people he left bleeding in his wake, he saw his work as a “noble” business.

“Victimizing the poor is sinful,” he says. “Here, we were taking a negligible amount from the extremely affluent in Mumbai, and giving it to the dons, who were the poorer ones. The way I looked at it, we were facilitating an equitable distribution of wealth in the city.”

* * *

It was February 27, 2007. Jadhav was inebriated when he walked out of a Mumbai bar and was picked up by a police officer. Drunk out of his wits, he was driven to the precinct house.

“Get me some alcohol, and I’ll talk,” Jadhav told the cops arrogantly, still certain about his immortality in the world of crime. The cops didn’t respond. “At least give me a cigarette. Do you have some hashish?”

The policemen handed him a plate of noodles.

Jadhav tried to explain to the interrogating cops that he was an addict, that if he wasn’t given alcohol, he would start shivering and pass out. The policemen, however, didn’t relent. Jadhav passed out and woke up two days later in a government-run hospital, unaware that he had been arrested.

By the time he landed in a Mumbai jail, Jadhav had eleven cases against him, including three counts of attempted murder. He was booked under the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, and charged with procuring arms and ammunition for the underworld. Most of his friends, meanwhile, had also been arrested. Most of them were beaten, charged and abandoned by their families. One, upon being arrested, lost his father to a heart attack.

While in jail, Jadhav sank into despair. His friends’ plight had started bothering him. His addictions could no longer come to his rescue, and there was no one on the outside who cared what happened to him. He began to think about reform — something that, for a long time, seemed impossible. As he stayed in the prison, staring out the window at apartments inhabited by “normal” families, he craved the boringness of a mundane life.

Jadhav sits under a bridge at Marine Lines to talk about his past.

Several of his ex-gang members also seemed to be turning against him. Police files show that one guided investigators to the cyber café Jadhav had once used as an office, while others helped the police identify motorcycles used in the crimes.

Jadhav decided he had to make a choice: He could continue to be one of those men in prison, and eventually die like an “unclaimed stray on a street,” or rewrite his story. Determined to start a new life, Jadhav, who could not afford a lawyer, took to reading Indian law books to prepare his bail application — something difficult to get for someone accused of activity related to organized crime.

He “used and misused the law” for his benefit, offering a host of defenses — that the revolvers used in the shootout hadn’t been found, that the motorbikes used in the chase didn’t belong to him, that the eyewitness accounts were inconsistent, and that because he had been passed out for two days following his arrest, he had not been properly presented before the court. His arguments worked, and he was granted bail in 2010.

“When he first returned home after being granted bail, we couldn’t recognize him,” says Sachin Shivale, 45, Jadhav’s childhood friend. “He had lost a lot of weight, and had dark spots all over his face. It was like I’d never known him — the criminal inside him, nor the man who had just walked out of jail. He was a quiet boy when we were growing up, wouldn’t raise a finger at anyone. I couldn’t believe that boy had turned into a gangster. He let us down.”

Although Jadhav had decided to reform, no one — the police, his family, friends or neighbors — believed it possible. His neighbors wouldn’t share their phone numbers with him, and most of them still saw him as a long-haired hooligan with two pistols tucked in his trousers.

Jadhav’s father suggested getting a job, and he started working as a quality inspector for a small razorblades manufacturer. But within a few months, the Mumbai police arrived at his workplace and picked him up for inquiries into an underworld-perpetrated murder. One day in 2011, cops arrived, grabbed him by the nape of the neck, and asked him questions about a recent hold-up.

“They’re friends,” he said, when his coworkers asked him about it. But friends don’t carry machine guns, and no one at the office believed him. He quit the job soon after.

“Every time there was a case of extortion, I was one of the usual suspects,” he says. “They’d ask me the same things every time — Who did you shoot? Where did you shoot? How many bullets? I wanted to let go of that past, but it was being rubbed into my skin over and over again.”

Jadhav’s 71-year-old mother, Shalini says, “They’d even come home, would scour through our belongings, and turned everything upside down each time. They even took my husband away for questioning twice, but we couldn’t do much. We knew our son had been in the wrong.”

* * *

Unable to find another job, Jadhav relapsed into alcohol and drugs. Three years later, in 2013, he was tried and acquitted on all charges, largely on technicalities. In making his ruling, the judge admonished the police department for their failure to prove the charges against Jadhav, writing: “The prosecution has failed to establish the nexus between the accused and the alleged offense. In these circumstances, I have no option but to hold that the prosecution has miserably failed to prove its case against the accused.”

But although Jadhav was acquitted, he was still an alcoholic and drug addict. He would stay high for days on cheap booze and bad drugs. He would go without food for days — comfortably lost in his inebriated stupor, waking up in gutters, abandoned buildings, and footpaths.

“That’s when I decided to refer him to a doctor, and took him to the Thane Institute for Psychological Health,” says Mangala, Jadhav’s sister. “Here, he went cold turkey to get over his addiction. Although the process was extremely difficult, he completed it. He started confiding in his doctor, and said he wanted some time off from nagging policemen and judgemental eyes. The doctor advised him to join the Muktangan Rehabiliation Centre in Pune.”

After completing four 30-day programs at Muktangan, Jadhav wasn’t ready to go back to a society that “just wasn’t willing to take me back.” He joined the center as a volunteer. For a monthly compensation of 1,000 rupees — about $15 — he spent 16 hours a day cleaning toilets, throwing out trash, mopping up vomit, and tying up new addicts during their withdrawals.

“It was very difficult for him to trust me at first,” says Jetha, his counselor. “Everything I’d say, he would go back and verify it through the internet. I noticed he was quieter than other addicts, and was giving up on himself. To reform, he needed to express what he was feeling — anger, frustration, and despair. I was looking for ways of expression for him, and that’s when we discovered he could run.”

Six months after Jadhav started running, in mid-2016, he was ready to go back home. “I realized if I had to reintegrate into the society, I had to go back, and face all those people again — even the ones I shot,” he says. “I hadn’t taken drugs and alcohol in over two years. I was training to become a professional runner.”

He simply experienced a “sense of achievement,” he says, “something I’d never known in my life.”

Jadhav runs at the Marine Lines esplanade.
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