Everyone in California is waiting for “The Big One,” an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 or greater that will destroy infrastructure and cause mass panic. Yet when I moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast, I discovered that since most of the people I knew were making do with small apartments and ever-increasing rent, having supplies on hand for a natural disaster required a space premium that many couldn’t afford. I began to put together an earthquake kit that would not only serve my household (which over the years fluctuated from one to three other people) but also my neighborhood, if needed. Even with all that work, I didn’t consider myself a prepper, just someone who heeded the Red Cross’s warnings.
When the average person thinks about doomsday preppers, they probably think of paranoid right-leaning wing nuts clinging to a small arsenal of guns and stockpiling toilet paper from Walmart in case their conspiracy theories come true. It’s a fair assumption — many television depictions reflect that mind-set, though the fears vary from group to group. Some are afraid of government collapse, others fear a solar flare, still others are preparing for a race war they think is inevitable. When those are the dominant examples, it’s easy to dismiss the practice as absurd and hysterical.
I am a leftist, anarchist prepper, and while we differ politically, I have to admit, the extreme preppers you see on TV are not completely out of their minds.
I used to focus only on preparing for earthquakes and other natural disasters. That changed in 2011 when I went to my first protest, an Occupy Oakland action, with a medic bag. I didn’t know yet that I’d be out there for hours, so I didn’t have supplies I consider basic now — food, caffeine, extra smokes, insoles for my combat boots. I didn’t know how aggressive the police would be, and the handkerchief around my neck was more for a punk look than medical necessity. I hadn’t received formal training to be a street medic; I just happened to know first aid and CPR and wanted to help. I carried a 15-pound bag on my back, full of medical supplies, mainly gauze and tape but also things like tourniquets that I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I was scared — I’d had rubber bullets shot at me the night before — but I was determined to drop off water to the protesters and make sure that people had sterile supplies.
That night, I tasted tear gas for the first time. You smell it before you taste it, and you taste its strange, bitter sting before it fills your lungs or blinds you. I was alone, and terrified, among a crowd that was shouting and crying and panicked in the streets.
“Disperse!” came the command from the helicopter hovering above us. Every exit point seemed blocked by clouds of tear gas or the loud kapow! of flash-bangs. Every explosion startled me; I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. Rubber bullets were being shot at us from every direction by cops dressed in SWAT gear, as if this was a war, not a protest. Someone next to me fell to the ground grabbing his face. I saw he was bleeding and scared, and I dropped next to him, telling him he was going to be OK, that I was a medic. It was my first time treating a wound in the street during a fray. Looking down at my hands and seeing a stranger’s blood on my gloves chilled me, but there wasn’t time to feel anything. My legs moved on autopilot, going from person to person to check on them. “Do you need a medic?” I found myself shouting over the noise every time I heard a scream.
I went home, shaken and shaking, all of the adrenaline flooding me at once. I slept uneasily, tossing and turning in my bed. I wanted my partner to sleep next to me, but also couldn’t bear to be touched. I had nightmares that lasted for weeks: dizzying, confusing dreams where I was struggling to breathe or see but could hear pain all around me, and I would wake up panting and sweating.
Despite the trauma, I kept going to protests. I felt grimly determined, and as I kept going, I became more desensitized to the chaos. My medic bag evolved into something more suited for treating the effects of police brutality than simply a place to keep extra snacks and water on hand. I learned from other medics how police often target medics and organizers for arrest in order to destabilize and demoralize the entire group, and I grimly prepared for an inevitable attack or arrest.
I also began to realize that I needed to prep for something that’s increasingly as likely as earthquakes: large-scale civil unrest, which I witnessed a taste of in the streets that night. I began to think of how people act when they’re scared, including and especially law enforcement. I started to think about home security, transportation options if fuel was limited, how to access information without the internet. I studied natural disasters and their repercussions around the world as a way to understand how to keep myself and my community safer.
* * *
While I was beginning to explore the art of prepping, I met my partner, a fellow anarchist who specializes in constructing urban shelters and creating makeshift weapons out of random finds from the local dumpster. Ape is many things I am not — slender where I am curvy, tan where I am pale, easygoing where I am exacting. One of the bonds of our relationship is our enjoyment of teaching and learning from each other. Ape teaches me how to handle and care for knives and guns, while I teach him how to recognize medicinal herbs in an urban setting, how to preserve food, and how to stitch up a wound. Rather than depending on each other to do certain tasks, we’ve worked on becoming capable of filling in for each other in a pinch, leading us to learn new skills that we’ve found useful while camping, when the car breaks down, or during any number of other mundane situations. Our shared nerdy interest in preparing for disaster, combined with our complementary skills, has made casual but constant prepping a core part of our relationship. While other couples may prefer a nice candlelit dinner out, I love poring over the most recent articles in Survival Magazine or seeing what new products knife company Cold Steel has this month.
Ape and I had sex at an “End of the World” orgy on the night of Trump’s election. The crowd was mostly sex workers and queer folks. None of us wanted to face this election alone, so we got together at a friend’s loft apartment to handle the news as best we could — with food, alcohol and sex. What was normally a group of boisterous party animals started off with us tentatively nibbling at cheese and crackers, whispering to each other in corners, and halfheartedly making out, one eye always on the votes coming in. The room was increasingly quiet and depressed as the votes were counted and we realized that our worst nightmare, a United States governed by the pinnacle of toxic masculinity, was coming true.
When it became clear that Trump was going to be our next president, silence descended over the mostly naked crowd. Everyone seemed frozen in place. I felt a sinking in my gut and I knew what we needed to do; my boyfriend and I looked at each other and began to dress without a word.
“I’ll grab my medic bag,” I said quietly to him as I pulled my socks on, and he nodded. We knew we were going out into the streets of Oakland that night.
We arrived at the protest in Oakland’s downtown Oscar Grant Plaza while people were still shouting through megaphones at a crowd pulsating with fury and fear. When we took to the streets, I reached for Ape’s hand, both for reassurance and so we wouldn’t lose each other. We interlaced our fingers when we heard the first flash-bang — I flinched but kept walking. It wasn’t long before the police were throwing tear gas canisters into the crowd. While others turned to run and escape, we squeezed each other’s hands and walked into the fray to find people who needed our help. I didn’t know if we were going to be arrested, or injured, or even killed, but I knew I had to be there as long as I was needed.
We were out there for three days straight. Our lungs took weeks to recover from the gas and pepper spray we inhaled, but we took turns making mullein leaf tea to help the process along.
After that, I began to take my prepping a lot more seriously, even going so far as to make connections with similarly minded leftist survivalists to create a local list of resources, both online and off, covering things like who has what skills and who has extra water or food stored away.
* * *
I was on a forum online a couple of months ago looking for suggestions about bugout bags (prepacked bags you grab when escaping a dire situation) for urban environments, particularly if you’re more inclined to “bug in,” or shelter in place. Every sensible idea was accompanied by conspiracy theories about who or what was going to kill us all — a race war, a solar flare, a nuclear blast. Many of the commenters talked frankly, and sometimes cheerfully, about the need to kill other people in order to protect their families. Many of them wore Make America Great Again hats in their profile avatars, or actively supported the police in their forum signatures. They spoke with disgust about those they deemed “un-American,” particularly protesters who participated in Black Lives Matter or Occupy-type actions. Heather Heyer’s death — the woman who was mowed down by a white supremacist’s car during the Charlottesville, Virginia, protest — was seen as hilarious, not traumatizing.
I leaned back in my chair, my eyes scanning the vitriol on the forum, feeling anxious. The sun slowly set while I sat motionless behind the glowing screen, transfixed and horrified, my tea going from piping hot to ice cold. I forgot it was there. I could feel the tension in my gut clench tighter as I read the words of people threatening to spray bleach in the eyes of protesters at the next action. I was trying to figure out how real the threat was.
It was very clear that if I wanted to learn from the people on this forum, I couldn’t say anything about who I was or what I believed. Realizing that I might be chatting with the same people who were wielding guns at the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville was a startling moment, especially when I felt so safe at home in the Bay Area. Here, in my second-story apartment surrounded by an urban herb garden, my two cats weaving around my feet, I was more concerned about the police than my neighbors. But on this forum, I was brushing shoulders with the alt-right. As they regularly and violently vocalized, they were prepping, in part, to protect themselves from people like me.
This had troubling implications for what might happen locally if “The Big One” did hit. Would the people most prepared for life without the internet, hospital care and city infrastructure be the right-wingers who wanted to Make California Red Again? Would my black, transgender and disabled friends have to beg Trump supporters for supplies? That seemed more dangerous to me than the potential disaster itself.
While MAGA-hat wearers believe strongly that leftists and liberals are weak and ineffective in a survival scenario, I discovered that many of us already engage in activities that could be useful in an apocalypse. Knowing how to sew and mend clothes, reuse trash in creative ways, and fix machinery were all things I found among my artsy friends, for example. My witchy friends knew a lot about herbs and urban foraging. And a surprising amount of my Burning Man community not only knew a lot about filtering and recycling water or using alternative energy but also seemed to own and use guns, contrary to the belief I heard on conservative Twitter that a lack of weapons would be the left’s downfall.
Just last week I was sitting at a worn picnic table in the back of my favorite dive bar, drinking a PBR tall can and debating favorite guns with a group of friends. The air was warm even as the sun started to go down, and Edison lights illuminated our faces while we chatted. The conversation was spirited but friendly, all of us bonded by a love of camping, metalworking, and yes, weapons training. I was about halfway through my beer, eagerly discussing my desire to develop my upper-body strength to have a steadier hand with various pistols. The sun set while my friends, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, continued to argue about which guns would be best in a zombie apocalypse, a thought experiment we used to discuss end-of-the-world scenarios that involve medical crises, hostile attacks, and the total collapse of city infrastructure all happening at once. For some, this might just be a silly conversation, but for us it offered a chance to work through multiple disaster scenarios at the same time and talk through real plans and theories.
By talking about prepping with more and more friends, I began to discover that many of them were also interested in developing skills that would be useful in a serious crisis situation. Several of them were already doing the same thing my partner and I had done — creating bunkers full of supplies and developing networks that could effectively take care of each other if the shit hit the fan. My community includes urban farmers, people who butcher their own meat, people who can and pickle the fruit and veg they get in their community agriculture boxes.
While the prepper movement may seem very right wing on the internet, offline I’ve found a vibrant survivalist society that is adaptable and stronger than they get credit for. Being a leftist prepper is less rare than I expected. We just don’t talk about it as much on the internet. Which, if you’re concerned that people are going to raid your compound for supplies, is probably sensible when you think about it! I also realized that the prepping I uncovered in my communities was less about individual survival and more about creating an alternative infrastructure, since the ones in place are already failing our marginalized friends and family, even without a disaster looming. Mutual aid is the core of our organizing, instead of pure self-preservation. Knowing this, I’m confident that we will not only survive, but heal, rebuild and thrive.
In Italy at the end of 1944, the Negro 92nd Infantry Division of the United States Army discovered two gaunt men who claimed they had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. One man was thin and blonde with a “scholarly appearance.” The other had brown skin, a slight build and an erect carriage. After two years behind barbed wire, they said, they had fled the camp and gone on an incredible journey to reach the American lines: swimming in lakes, hiking through the snow-covered Apennines, and taking shelter in barns, caves, woods and the homes of friendly partisan supporters. They claimed they dodged bullets and ate leaves to survive; they said they bore witness to the slaughter of women and babies. Their names were Reed Peggram, an African-American, and Gerdh Hauptmann, his Danish friend, and they were “ragged and near collapse from hunger and fatigue.”
Freelance war correspondent Max Johnson, writing for the Negro newspapers Call and Post, New York Amsterdam News and Baltimore Afro-American, reported this curious find. The headlines that accompanied his stories were purposefully provocative: “Negro Escapes German Camp in Italy,” “Two Scholars Flee Concentration Camp,” “How Boston Lad Studying in Denmark Escaped Nazis” and “Boy Friends Scorn Bombs, Come Out OK.” Although he reported their claims, Johnson was skeptical of Peggram’s tale, not even believing that he was an American citizen, since his “accent was decidedly British.” Another correspondent noted that Peggram claimed to have a bachelor’s and master’s from Harvard, that he spoke English flawlessly, along with four other languages, and that despite his ordeal, it was not his physical suffering that upset him most.
“One of my greatest losses was my diploma from Harvard,” Peggram said. “They don’t issue duplicates. But I still have my Phi Beta Kappa key.”
The two men refused to leave each other’s side, but it was not clear if Hauptmann would be allowed to return to the U.S. with Peggram. Johnson called their story, “a modern version of Damon and Pythias,” referencing the Greek legend of loyalty between friends. Here were “bonds of friendship so strong that even the Nazis were unable to break them.”
“If Peggram’s story proves to be correct,” wrote Johnson, “it will undoubtedly become one of the greatest human interest stories yet revealed in this war.”
* * *
Reed Edwin Peggram was born on July 26, 1914, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Harvey Thomas Peggram, worked variously as a shorthand teacher, a self-employed card writer, and, according to his World War I draft card, an artist. Harvey was inducted into the United States Army on November 6, 1917, and served overseas as a private in the medical unit between May 15, 1918, and September 9, 1919. He returned from the war “100 percent disabled,” and became a permanent resident at the Central State Hospital in Petersburg, Virginia, where he was treated for gas poisoning, according to his family. He would remain there until his death in 1956. For all intents and purposes, young Reed no longer had a father.
In the club photographs for the 1931 Boston Latin School literary and drama clubs, Peggram’s face stands out as the only African-American there. In a class of 262 students, Peggram ranked in the first quarter in scholarship. He received several awards and obtained honors on exams in Elementary Latin, Elementary French, Elementary German, and Advanced Latin. As it has been for hundreds of years of Boston Latin graduates, Harvard was the next step.
On his 1931 Harvard application, Peggram said he wanted “to become an accomplished linguist.” He applied for multiple scholarships, stating on financial aid forms that his mother had three additional children with her new husband, “Mr. Farrar,” and that his grandmother was his sole financial supporter. He also listed his father as dead. He was accepted to the college and distinguished himself, not just as a fine student but as one of the few black students at Harvard at the time.
In 1934, applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, Peggram asked Dean A. Chester Hanford for a recommendation. “He is one of the highest scholars in his class,” wrote Hanford. “Last November he was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He is a thorough gentleman.” Hanford shared a copy of the letter with Peggram, who promptly thanked him. But there was another letter Peggram did not see.
“I wish to supplement my letter of May 29th to you about Mr. Reed Peggram by stating that he is a negro [sic],” Hanford wrote in his second letter. “It seemed to me that you should know that fact.”
“Thank you for your testimonial and letter about Reed Peggram,” responded tutor Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow. “I should like to thank you however for telling me that Peggram is a Negro. I should certainly have been somewhat taken aback if I had admitted a man with such a name unwarned.” Although Gow insisted this information would have no bearing, Peggram did not get the scholarship.
Peggram graduated from Harvard in 1935, magna cum laude, with the thesis, “A comparison of the personal element in Madame Bovary and L’Éducation Sentimentale.” Over the next two years, he would get his master’s from Harvard, study English and comparative literature at Columbia, and return to Harvard to begin work on his Ph.D. It is clear from Peggram’s letters that while there, he became infatuated with Leonard Bernstein, who would later become famous for composing the music for “West Side Story.” Bernstein arrived at Harvard in 1935 and was also a graduate of the Boston Latin School — perhaps the two already knew each other from high school.
One night at Harvard, Peggram and Bernstein sat side by side on a studio couch in a dimly lit room while a quartet played Beethoven. Peggram had asked that the lights be lowered because he believed that it was “more pleasant to listen to music in a room that has been darkened.” Peggram was in “ecstasy and agony at once,” sitting so close to Bernstein. Peggram requested a song from Debussy while Bernstein listened with eyes closed as if he was asleep. In a letter, Peggram would later explain that he felt, “ecstasy because you are here, and agony because I do not dare touch you, even in the dark, for fear of breaking the spell of such exquisite beauty.”
In a series of letters written to Bernstein in October 1937, Peggram referenced T.S. Eliot, Rachmaninoff, Eros and Psyche, Diaghilev’s treatment of Nijinsky, and the speech of Aristophanes in “The Symposium,” a discourse on love that says when a person, “happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment.” Leonard Bernstein’s archive at the Library of Congress only contains Peggram’s letters. Bernstein’s replies are lost, save for a few brief, devastating quotes that Peggram included in his own letters, which suggest that Bernstein rejected his overtures.
“The revelation of your letter,” wrote Peggram, “was after all, a great shock to me, and your use of the words ‘repulsive’ and ‘shudder’ an insult to the tenets which I hold sacred.” Later Peggram — demonstrating his preference for British spelling — beseeched Bernstein, “May I also request that, as a favour to me, you destroy all my letters and any other material that I have sent or given you during this regrettable incident?”
In 1938, Peggram got a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne: a chance to travel, a fresh start.
* * *
In the fall of 1938, Peggram met the person who would change his life. There is no record of how Peggram met Danish scholar Gerdh Hauptmann, who was studying fine art and painting at the Sorbonne, for the same reason that there is no written record of any facet of their relationship: They were gay, in a time when few dared to write such feelings down. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that this was the definitive romantic relationship of Peggram’s life. Hauptmann taught him Danish; he taught Hauptmann English. Within a year, he would write that they were “inseparable.”
“Recent European events have caused me to leave France for Denmark,” Peggram wrote in September 1939. “I hope you will also join your prayers to mine for humanity, civilization, and culture.”
Peggram spent the early months of the war working with Hauptmann on a 120-page manuscript, “Poems and Sketches,” a translation of the 19th century Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen. During this time, Peggram’s family and friends implored him to return to the U.S. while he still could. The U.S. State Department had already warned Americans to leave the European continent, but Peggram did not. Unable to declare his love for Hauptmann and explain that he would not leave Europe without the man he loved, Peggram baffled his family by insisting that his need to collaborate with Hauptmann on scholarly projects “richer and more profound than either of us had produced separately” made it impossible to leave Hauptmann behind.
The men left Copenhagen shortly before it was invaded by the Nazis on April 9, 1940. They fled to Paris to retrieve their luggage and made their way to Florence, Italy, where they wrongly assumed they would be safe. They spent the rest of the year stranded and broke, pleading for money from family in the U.S. who could not understand why Peggram would not just come home.
Information about Reed’s European movements are located in letters between him and Dorothy Norman, the editor and publisher of the journal Twice a Year from 1938 – 1948. “I am struggling for my life,” Peggram wrote on January 15, 1941. “If someone does not help me very soon, I shall just simply die.”
“We wish only to live, to write, to create, to say what we have to say as only we know how to say it,” he continued. “It is because we know we must do this together that we are only annoyed, rather than grateful, when people offer me a ticket to N.Y. as some have indeed attempted — without explaining, by the way, how my collaborator could ever be saved through this philanthropy.”
He assured Norman that he was not begging nor pleading. He said was merely making, “a statement of fact.”
“Two young artists of more than ordinary ability need immediate financial help in order not to perish,” he wrote. “In the name of art, of culture, of humanity in their deepest sense, this message must somehow be spread around where it will take effect at once, before it is too late.”
Hope came in the form of an inheritance. In September 1940, Peggram’s friend from Harvard, 25-year-old music student and aspiring concert pianist Montford Schley Variell, was found dead, according to The New York Times, “under mysterious circumstances” in his apartment. Lying face down, neatly wrapped from neck to feet in a blanket and sheet, Variell “had been dead for several days.” The police were not sure if he had committed suicide, died accidentally, or was murdered. Initially, the medical examiner declared his death a suicide by gas — the cause was later changed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Variell had a will and two life insurance policies that totaled $81,000, and he left money to several heirs, including $11,000 — worth approximately $160,000 in 2018 — to Peggram. This, he hoped, would be enough to get them both out of Europe. But the money would not be released to him unless he came home — without Hauptmann — to claim it.
Despite the legal obstacles, Peggram held out hope. In a letter dated April 9, 1941, he wrote to Norman: “Just how long it will take us to reach the U.S.A. still depends upon how soon acquaintances, consuls, attorneys, lawyers, etc. can experience sudden attacks of intelligence forceful enough to make them understand that we have been living here by necessity rather than by choice. But we know that even these will realize themselves in the end.”
After this, there were no more letters. Communications between Peggram and his friends and family stopped as, according to Peggram, he and Hauptmann were taken into a concentration camp at Bagni di Lucca, less than 50 miles from Florence.
* * *
When Peggram and Hauptmann told the story of their arrest to the Baltimore Afro-American, they did not mention homosexuality. They were taken into custody, they said, because the authorities felt “a Dane has no right to be a friend of a Negro.” After several days of interrogation, the Germans decided that Peggram would be permitted to leave German-occupied territory, but that Hauptmann, as the subject of a conquered country, would be compelled to join the German army. But, as the Afro-American put it, Peggram and Hauptmann “swore that whatever came, they would not break up.”
They were held at Bagni di Lucca until January 1944, when Allied planes gunned the camp, forcing the Germans to move their prisoners to another site. Over the next few months, the two men were shifted from camp to camp until they reached Piacenza, where Hauptmann was ordered to a German work camp. He refused to leave Peggram, whom the Germans would not compel to leave because, they said, “You are American.” The scholars were put in solitary confinement as the Germans pondered their fate.
“We didn’t know how long we stayed there, but it was really hell,” said Peggram. “Just enough soup to lead a miserable existence. For months we did not see a single human being. In fact, we saw nothing that was living. Not even bugs. There was no light, no action — nothing but a great deal of time to think about what was in store for us.”
Before their fate was decided, the camp was attacked by Italian partisans, who freed the prisoners and gave them shelter. Hauptmann and Peggram spent the rest of the year with the partisans, before striking out on their own in an attempt to reach the American lines.
“They found that all German-occupied territory was a prison,” wrote Johnson. “Without passports or other identification, their lives were worth less than when they were confined.”
Peggram and Hauptmann spent weeks hiking across country, once being shot at by German machine gunners, hiding with partisan families during the day and sleeping in barns at night. At last, they reached the 92nd Infantry Division, and were safe.
“They appeared to be as happy as two kids talking about what Santa Claus had brought them,” wrote Johnson. Although the reporter was initially skeptical of their story, there seems to be no reason to doubt Peggram and Hauptmann’s account of their imprisonment and escape. It is true that there was a camp at Bagni di Lucca, and that 16 miles away was another camp, Colle di Compito, that held citizens from the U.S., Great Britain and Denmark. Prisoners were often transferred between the two camps.
Peggram told Johnson, “We are not principally concerned with going to America. We only want to go some place where we can be assured remaining together to work in peace,” but Peggram returned to the U.S. alone, several months after encountering the 92nd Division. He departed Europe on the hospital ship Algonquin from Naples, Italy, arriving in Charleston, South Carolina, on August 14, 1945. He would not see Hauptmann again.
* * *
Upon his return to the U.S., Peggram was hospitalized for four years, the result, he said in a 1950 alumni newsletter, of a “nervous breakdown.” After his release, he returned to Boston to live in a multiple-family dwelling shared by his mother and half-brother. His existence was mainly solitary.
“My own postgraduate history is no particular triumph,” he wrote in a later class note. “Either I am too lazy or too comfortable (scarcely the latter) to function as a professional translator.”
According to these missives, he spent the rest of his life singing in Episcopal Church choirs, improving the “seven or eight” foreign languages he knew, and failing to convince a publisher to accept his “antique, revised, unpublished doctoral dissertation.” He died on April 20, 1982.
In 1971 Gerdh Hauptmann published a book of poems, Declaration, in English, by a Danish publisher. One poem, “Ante,” appeared to reference his relationship with Peggram. It began:
I remember once —
we were walking together,
perhaps in a year or two, you said,
and we made plans, and discussed
whether it should be in New York
— in Paris — or maybe
somewhere in China.
We did not know then —
although perhaps we did suspect it —
that the apples would not ripen
on the trees
or the next
The sound of voices in the corridor outside roused me from my fitful sleep. The instant I forced my eyes open, the all-too-familiar feeling of dread gushed through my body. I winced as I leaned on my arm to heave myself upright. The fresh stitches on my forearm from my most recent self-harm tugged sharply. With blurry eyes, I squinted at the clock: 10:43 a.m. This meant I had to wait one hour and 17 minutes until I could have a drink. I never drank before midday; only alcoholics did that.
This hollow feeling of dread had been with me for as long as I could remember, continually gnawing away at my insides. I tried to explain it to my dad when I was about nine years old. All I could tell him was that I felt sick and that something was terribly wrong. My dad took me to a doctor who, of course, found nothing physically wrong with me.
As a kid, I was obsessed with Robin Hood. I would strut around the garden wearing nothing but shorts and a tea towel cape tied around my neck. Grandad would chase me, hoist me onto his shoulders and spin me around like I was flying. It was one of the rare times that I would laugh with the reckless abandon of a typical child. I would grip tightly to his soft balding head and breathe in pipe tobacco and Old Spice as we spun. But as my teenage years approached, suddenly the chasing stopped. Grandad replaced my Robin Hood sword with hideously pink Sindy dolls in cocktail dresses. In his soft Birmingham lilt, he began to insist I “play quietly and sit properly.” I had no idea what “sitting properly” even meant.
As I got older, I began to understand the problem was that I wasn’t what people expected. I didn’t act like typical girls my age, and if it were left up to me, I wouldn’t dress like one either. The trouble was that as my body began to change, it became harder to find any clothes that I was comfortable in. Everything made me feel like there was too much of me. I began to restrict my food in an attempt to lose weight, but my body continued to grow in ways that repulsed me. My grandparents’ gifts started to include dresses, which I was obligated to wear when they visited. I couldn’t hide my disdain; I likely came across as a moody teenager. My grandad’s disappointment in me was evident. The gnawing emptiness was joined by an ever-growing sense of self-loathing.
When I discovered alcohol at the age of 13, it felt like I had found the holy grail. After I hurriedly swallowed a liter bottle of bitterly tart Merrydown cider, the sick feeling was suddenly replaced by a warm, soothing numbness. I felt as if I could breathe freely for the first time in my life.
* * *
I reached over to the bedside table, fumbling for my tobacco tin. My hand found cold metal, and I eagerly grabbed it, preparing to roll my first joint of the day. In my jumbled mind, smoking weed first thing in the morning was somehow O.K., even if drinking alcohol wasn’t. It wouldn’t send me into a blissful blackout, but it would at least take the edge off, enough to function until I could justify having a drink.
I stared across the clothing-strewn floor to my desk, redundant now that I was no longer studying. A few years earlier, I had begun a social work degree. I was 32 years old and it was one of many attempts to get my life together. However, it was there I started to spiral out of control, and just 18 months into the program, my lead tutor suggested that I leave and seek out some help. I hadn’t been able to work since then, and things had continued to get worse. Alcohol no longer took away the feeling of dread, it just barely skimmed the edge off it. Crippling anxiety now accompanied the empty void of despair. I had resorted to self-harming by cutting my arms, in another desperate attempt to blank out the pain. My doctor prescribed medication, and I attended counseling sessions, but the answer as to why I felt like this, or what I could do to change it, never came.
I thought I’d come close to an explanation in my early 20s when I met Denise. I was living in Eastbourne at the time and working as a care assistant in a nursing home. On one early morning shift, Denise breezed into the canteen. My eyes locked onto her face, taking in her sharp angular jawline, which framed a broad cheeky smile. My eyes traveled to her exposed and glorious hairy legs. I mistook her for a man at first and was shocked to discover she was female. Nothing ever happened between us, but the fascination I felt toward her led me to assume that I must be a lesbian. It would explain so much: the tendency to be a tomboy, my lack of relating to anything female.
I then jumped into my lesbian identity with the enthusiasm of an Olympic diver. I had my hair cut short and spiky, and I filled my wardrobe with shirts and ties of every color imaginable. For a while I felt good. I entered into a serious relationship with a woman who loved my masculine ways. However, as the novelty of my reinvention wore off, the deep empty pit of despair returned with new strength. Eventually, my partner couldn’t handle my depression, and she left. It seemed being a lesbian wasn’t my answer after all.
* * *
I inhaled deeply on the joint. As the gray-brown tinged paper burnt closer to my yellow-stained fingers, I began to feel the subtle numbness take hold. Thoughts about trying to sort out my life were soon replaced with thoughts about buying alcohol. It was the weekend; it made sense to wait until Monday to start trying to get my life together. I pulled on the nearest pair of jeans I could find from the heap on the floor, threw on my khaki baseball cap to hide my shame, and headed out.
Being around other people was an anxious and paranoia-inducing ordeal. I hurriedly bought milk and ingredients to make chili rather than just purchasing alcohol. I noticed the wine was on a three-for-£10 deal. I decided it made logical monetary sense to buy all three. Anyway, l was only buying wine as I was having chili that evening. Wine is just something you have with chili — or so I told myself.
The shop assistant did the usual double take when I replied “Thank you” in my high voice after he called me “Sir.” This was a common occurrence for me, and for reasons I could not understand, I really enjoyed it when I was mistaken for a man.
The chili remained unmade that evening, the pint of milk turned sour on the windowsill, Monday came and went.
Four months earlier, l had been discharged from a therapeutic community after completing a 12-month therapy program. There, they tried to teach me controlled drinking, which, based on the state of my life, seemed to have failed. It was clear to me that their therapy didn’t work, and I rang them up to tell them so.
“I’m not managing,” I complained to the receptionist, “I feel like therapy hasn’t helped at all.”
A week later, I met with my therapist, Gilly. Feeling at my wit’s end, for the first time in my life I was honest about the amount of alcohol I was drinking. Gilly looked up at me. A silver chain looped around the large glasses hanging from her neck swayed as gently as the cadence of her soft voice: “Perhaps it would be helpful to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.”
“I’m not an alcoholic!” I protested. “If I didn’t have these issues I wouldn’t need to drink.” Despite my protests, I agreed to try it.
The following Tuesday night, I hovered tentatively at the side door of Saint Mary’s Church in Oxford. I was met by a tiny and decidedly over-enthusiastic AA greeter who dragged me inside. The narrow room was furnished with a table at the far end, chairs around its outer walls, and an oval arrangement of chairs in the middle. I wondered if the inner circle was for members only. I had imagined a musty and somber room, but this room was alive with bright smiles and laughter.
The meeting began, and as people spoke, I was shocked to hear them describing the exact way that I felt. Yet, by following a sober life and completing the 12 steps, they had managed to find a happy life. I wanted that, but I could not accept I was an alcoholic. I knew I had a problem, but I was terrified of not being able to drink at all. However, the “one day at a time” approach of AA enabled me to cope with the idea of putting down the drink for a brief while. At my next meeting, I announced myself as having “alcohol dependency issues,” making sure to differentiate myself from the alcoholics.
The following weeks were hell on earth. Without the fuzzy haze of alcohol, the outside world became razor sharp, my internal world a raging waterfall of emotions. Then, finally, in one early morning AA meeting, I stopped fighting. I suddenly found myself announcing, “I am an alcoholic.” Those four words would change everything, but not in the way I expected.
* * *
Over the following months, my life changed dramatically. I remained sober, clean, and free from self-harm. Although the inner void was still there, I had learned healthy ways to manage the pain. I had even started to believe in a future where I could finally be free of it. I embraced facing difficult issues and the healing that came from that. One problem I could not seem to shake was my eating. I knew I wasn’t fat and yet the desire to restrict food was still there. It made no sense.
After sharing my eating issues in a meeting one day, I went for a coffee with Kevin, my AA best friend. We had a surprising amount of similarities in how we each struggled with feelings of shame about our bodies. Kevin leaned in, lowered his voice and asked me if he could trust me. I nodded. He took a deep breath and then, with a shaking voice, he told me that he dressed in female clothing at home. His honesty made me voice something I had only uttered a couple of times in my life: I wished I was male.
That evening, as I searched online for some support for my friend, I discovered the vast community of transgender people on YouTube. I had some knowledge of trans women but no idea that trans men existed. I found a video timeline of a trans guy celebrating a year on testosterone. He spoke about always knowing something wasn’t right, about his distress when his puberty began as his breasts grew and his hips developed. I watched his face light up as he described his growing sense of peace in himself as his face, voice, and body had changed. I suddenly had a moment of epiphany where I understood what was making me restrict food: Keeping very slim meant my figure more closely resembled that of a boy.
But I couldn’t be transgender, I thought; I would have surely known earlier in life. I apparently had some gender issues, wanting a boyish figure, enjoying wearing men’s clothes, so perhaps I fit the term genderqueer. In that case, I could alter my appearance a little, to see if that made me feel less ill-at-ease in myself. Watching numerous videos of trans men in early transition, I noticed that most used a “binder,” a vest made of a unique material to flatten their chests. I had been squeezing into a tight sports bra for years to get rid of the unsightly lumps. I ordered a binder, telling myself that it would just allow me to embrace more of my tomboy self.
The morning it arrived, I hungrily tore back the packaging. I squeezed myself into the skin-tight material, and violently shoved my sweaty breasts under my armpits, as per the instructions. I threw on the nearest T-shirt I could find and then stood back to study my appearance in the full-length mirror. I gasped, the realization like a punch to my stomach. There I was; that was my chest the way it should be. I understood at that moment that I was indeed male. I hadn’t realized earlier because when I was growing up, the words just were not available to describe what I had been feeling. There was a name for the pain I’d been feeling all this time: gender dysphoria.
I felt relief to finally know the reason for this pain, but enormous fear about what this meant. I would have to come out to my friends and family. I would have to go through the process of gender transition, and I didn’t even know where to begin with that. Everything was once again uncertain, the future terrifyingly unclear. For the first time in my life, I felt liked and accepted by people. I was convinced that if I said I was transgender I would lose the friendships I’d made, and likely my family, too. I was so afraid of the unknown future that I considered drinking again and this time not stopping until it killed me. Better that, I thought, than to face coming out and trying to lead a sober life as a man who would never be accepted as such.
I didn’t pick up a drink, but I did sink back into a state of despair and anxiety. Every time someone called my name or referred to me as “she” it was like a blow to my chest. I wanted to scream out that I was male. I wanted to tear my skin off and show people that I am here, that I’ve been here all along, underneath, and that the pain I felt was from years of suffocating the real me. Eventually, I reached a point where the pain of continuing to deny my male identity far outweighed the fear of what people might say to me when I announced it. I knew I just had to take a leap of faith.
Being in Alcoholics Anonymous made coming out particularly challenging. Having to announce my name in meetings meant that there wasn’t a subtle way to slowly come out. I just had to do it, fast, like ripping off a Band-Aid. On a Friday morning, I walked into the church hall and was greeted by the familiar buzz of voices and the smell of fresh croissants and filter coffee. I said hello to a couple of people, but I was too nervous to do anything but take my seat and wait for the meeting to begin. The part of the meeting came where members were invited to share. I took a deep breath. My heart felt as if it was coming out of my chest and I could barely keep my head still for shaking.
“My name is Finn, and I am an alcoholic,” I announced.
The usual response is to say hello back, but as this was not the name people were used to, I was greeted instead by “Hello,” followed by incoherent mumbling. I took another deep breath and went on to explain that I am transgender and would be grateful if people could use my new name and male pronouns when referring to me. The remaining 15 minutes of the meeting went painfully slowly, and I felt like I was going to throw up every one of my internal organs.
When the meeting ended, I was engulfed by a large crowd, hugging me, saying my new name, congratulating me and expressing their admiration. At that moment, I felt more loved and accepted than I ever had in my life. The joy at hearing myself referred to as “he” confirmed that I had made the right choice. As I went on to other meetings and told more people, the feeling of knowing this is right settled more deeply into my being. I moved from wishing I was a man to understanding that I already was one — one that needed a few modifications, but a man all the same.
I am now approaching eight years sober and clean, and it’s been six-and-a-half years since I announced the truth of who I am. This morning I awoke to the familiar feeling of gratitude and possibility. I jumped out of bed heading for the bathroom, and the hallway mirror stopped me in my tracks. I paused to smile back at the man with the graying sideburns and white flecks in his full beard. I made a cup of tea and settled into my well-worn desk chair, preparing for a day of writing work and university degree study.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.