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King Chaos, Queen Cricket and One Long, Strange Year in a Roadside Homeless Camp

At this lawless encampment of rickety RVs, residents face eviction, addiction and machete battles, but their self-made community is the only thing they have.

King Chaos, Queen Cricket and One Long, Strange Year in a Roadside Homeless Camp

The moment Cricket’s life flips upside down begins with a spark, and a gasoline generator. She is lying on her bed, playing with her cell phone in the 1991 Allegro Bay mobile home she shares with her boyfriend, Chaos. The lights go on. Then she hears him scream, “No! No! No!” She jumps up, looks outside and sees fire.

It’s 10:30 p.m. on October 18, 2020. The mercury has fallen, bringing new hardships for everybody living in Cricket’s community — three dozen rickety mobile homes perched along a busy arterial bordering the airport in Portland, Oregon.

“I’m coming, I’m getting water, I’m getting water!” Cricket yells as flames engulf the machine’s lidless gas tank, in an exterior compartment of the R.V. The couple has several vehicles that they park there, including another R.V., a GMC Yukon, a Ford F-150, a Toyota Camry and a Corolla, and a boat. “Let’s pull the generator out so we can save our home!”

She tries but can’t budge it. Chaos grabs the generator, and Cricket hurries to get out of the way. But, she recalls later, “I wasn’t fast enough and it splashed the burning gas all up on me.”

Things blur. After running for a moment, she stops, drops and rolls, then rips her pants off. Chaos pats out the flames. Someone pours water on her. In an effort to save the R.V. and their Chihuahua, Buddy, Chaos gets back in and drives away from the flaming pavement. The blazing generator, still attached, bounces alongside.

Again and again, Cricket screams, “I need to go to the hospital!” The pain is excruciating. “I was told I looked evil, like the devil,” she says.

Cricket and Chaos roar off in their Camry toward a hospital, but they miss a turn and skid up an embankment. “He backed it up off the hill, and then we realized the car was going donk-donk-donk,” Cricket recalls. They call 911. Finally — mercifully — an ambulance finds them. But the paramedics won’t let Chaos ride along.

Just like that, the pair are separated. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he can’t visit her in the hospital. Except for a stint when Chaos was in jail, Cricket says, it’s the longest the two have been apart in their five years together.

It will trigger what she now calls the biggest change of her life. She never would have seen it coming six months earlier, when the pair arrived at the place residents simply call “33rd.”

Winter: A Virus Spreads, A Community Grows

In the first months of 2020, reports of a scary new disease emerge, first in China, then near Seattle. By March, Oregon begins shutting down, creating major disruptions throughout the state, including for the city of Portland’s large population of unsheltered people. The Oregon Convention Center turns into a coronavirus homeless shelter. Local officials cut back on “sweeps” of homeless campsites; they also open three sanctioned tent cities. Probation officers halt in-person meetings. The Department of Motor Vehicles closes, and the Portland Bureau of Transportation stops towing most abandoned vehicles, as well as any occupied vehicles.

The growing pandemic’s effects soon reach NE 33rd Drive near NE Sunderland Avenue, on the city’s northern edge, near the airport and the Columbia River. It’s a place caught between nature and carbon combustion. Heron stalk canals, fawns graze under radar towers. Some evenings, Mount Hood shimmers pink, a picturesque backdrop for the lights of landing jetliners. Semitrailers full of fresh fruits and vegetables power to nearby warehouses, past jersey-clad cyclists heading to a riverside bike path, alongside luxury cars on their way to a golf course rated 17th-best in the nation.

Vehicles belonging to houseless residents parked on the side of NE 33rd Drive in Portland.

The handful of people living here in vehicles begins growing into a vehicular campsite a third of a mile long, occupying both sides of the road, at one point the largest such cluster in the city.

For many of the camp’s new residents, Covid-19 is just the latest in a series of body blows. A 41-year-old named Tim, who suffers from what he calls “extreme” bipolar disorder, arrives with his Chrysler PT Cruiser and a plan to “homestead,” or seek a legal way to live on public land. (Narratively chose not to publish the last names of residents on 33rd to allow them to speak freely about their experiences.)

A map of “33rd,” the area occupied by houseless people for most of this year. (Image by author)

On February 1, at 2:11 a.m., Tim puts up a disturbing Facebook video from the Interstate Bridge, a 3,558-foot-long structure across which more than a hundred thousand motorists travel daily, taking Interstate 5 between Oregon and Washington. Its towers reach 190 feet above the roadway; the Columbia River surges 230 feet below.

“Hi everybody,” Tim begins, wind crackling around him, green bridge trusses behind and inky waters rolling below. “I just want to know, what would you do?” His voice is high, pinched. “I get so much love from my so-called friends and so-called fucking family, that here I am. Highest point on the I-5 bridge.”

His pale, goateed face reflects the reddish hues of brake lights on the road below. “The only reason I’m not jumping? Because I’ve done it before, and it didn’t kill me!”

Tim standing behind his Chrysler PT Cruiser.

A few months later, Tim explains that he was in stable housing until the virus arrived. “I was in a house,” he says, standing on 33rd, taking sips of a whiskey and Dr. Pepper, waving pesky bees away. A huge gothic cross tattoo adorns his shirtless back. “Covid really fucked me off.” His roommate’s son got out of jail — possibly because of early releases of inmates by local jails due to Covid-19 — and moved in, with an “entourage.” Tim moved into his car. Then he blew a head gasket. He needed somewhere to go, and he had seen the growing community on 33rd.

Other residents on 33rd have equally harrowing tales about how the pandemic upended their lives.

Tom and Don drove up in a 1988 Jamboree Rallye motor home soon after their landlady shot herself. “Her doorway was 10 feet from the doorway of my bedroom,” recalls Don, who is wearing a “US Army, Ret.” ballcap. “I was in my room. I opened the door, she was on the floor, dead, right there. Her husband is freaking out. Automatically, one of my first thoughts was, how does this affect me?”

Tom outside of his 1988 Jamboree Rallye.

Don had been renting a room; his former brother-in-law Tom was paying to park the R.V. outside the house. They’d had a verbal agreement with the landlady. After her death, Don joined Tom in the R.V.

“Finally,” Don recalls, “the [new] landlord, the husband, he kind of freaked out.” He brought a “mob” to run them off.

The former brothers-in-law share a pattern of frequent, mostly harmless bickering with each other. Tom, age 59 with fluffy white hair and a snaggletooth, recalls good times camping and waterskiing in Bend, Oregon. He left in 2008 when work ran dry. Now he is often gone a few days on a job. It keeps him in shape, he says, but four decades of hauling furniture has taken its toll. On a recent day at work, he recalls as his cigarette’s cherry burns the filter, the job included “a lot of stairs.” Then the wind blew a door open, striking his head and almost knocking him out.

Don, a year older, wears leather shoes and a big gold watch, and occasionally salutes as a greeting. He comes from a family of Army “lifers,” including his father and a brother, and he retired as staff sergeant after 23 years. He cherishes the memory of a wild New York City homecoming parade after Operation Desert Storm, as well as the middle-class life that followed. “I had a wife, two kids, house, job, truck, cars. I was pretty satisfied.”

Don next to the Jamboree Rallye where he lives with Tom.

He also suspects that he has post-traumatic stress disorder, and he has struggled with addiction. In 2008, Don was arrested for driving under the influence. He retired from his job as an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector. Now he lives on a $1,500 military pension, after alimony. He survived Stage 3 tongue cancer, and struggles with enunciation due to the removal of part of his tongue, but he still smokes Marlboro Black 100’s and drinks, even though, he says, alcohol “blows my tongue up.”

The pair sought refuge on 33rd, the only mobile home campsite within Portland city limits listed on A one-star review compares 33rd to “a scene from Escape from New York.” Next to the line of ramshackle vintage mobile homes, there are tire piles, car parts, personal possessions, heaps of scrap metal, items gleaned from waste receptacles.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, experts say vehicle dwellers have become the fastest-growing subset of the houseless population.

“Vehicle residency is the biggest problem in America that no one’s talking about,” says Graham Pruss, Ph.D., an ethno-archaeologist at the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative. “We need a systemic, national response.”

There is no accurate national estimate for the number of people in this category. About 19,000 people in Los Angeles live in vehicles. San Francisco’s number has nearly doubled recently, from 755 to 1,355. Seattle’s grew fivefold between 2006 and 2020, from 544 to 2,748. Florida, Virginia and other East Coast communities are seeing spikes too, Pruss says.

In Portland’s Multnomah County, the official number of vehicle residents — 310 — wasn’t included in the county’s January 2019 “Point-in-Time” report detailing its most-recent count of homelessness. A spokesman wrote via email that the county-city Joint Office of Homeless Services used a new “in house” analysis, and the omission “might have been a hiccup.” But a comparison to Seattle’s King County, which carefully measures the trend, suggests that if the vehicle residency trend is similar in both places, there are roughly 1,000 people living in vehicles in and around Portland.

Now, in the pandemic era, some scientists project the already-growing homeless population will rise by as much as 40 percent. At the same time, laws restricting vehicle residency have grown 213 percent since 2006, according to the National Homelessness Law Center.

During the shutdown, some unoccupied R.V.s have been towed. Between April 1 and September 30, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) green tagged 50 vehicles in this section of 33rd and towed 19 “abandoned, unoccupied vehicles,” PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera wrote in an email. He added that the agency prioritizes “extremely hazardous or junked” unoccupied vehicles.

On 33rd, official visits are a part of everyday life, like passing cars, trucks and jets.

“This population has been and continues to be banished from public space, and yet nobody seems to even notice,” Pruss says. “Even advocates. Even social services. People see it. They just don’t write it down.”

Spring: Hustling Up a Living

Thirty-third Drive is part of a Portland neighborhood called Sunderland, whose very name — from “sunder,” meaning “to break apart” — suggests its uncoupling from surrounding areas. Its neighborhood association is inactive. There is, however, a minimum-security prison, the Columbia River Correctional Institution, and an Oregon Army National Guard facility nearby. Next door to the prison is Dignity Village, a cluster of tiny houses that is the oldest homeless village in the U.S. that has remained in a single location. Across the street lies the weed-covered track-and-field center for Concordia University, which closed in February after 115 years.

The F-15s taking off from Portland International are world-stoppingly loud. “When those fighters take off — holy shit,” says Bill, a retiree in a tie-dyed T-shirt and Birkenstocks who is living on Social Security in a trailer on 33rd. “You don’t hear nothing until they leave.”

Though they live on public space instead of private property, many vehicle residents on 33rd have local connections. Don was stationed at the National Guard facility. Chaos was paroled from the prison. One works at a nearby warehouse. Others have friends at Dignity Village.

None call themselves homeless. “I’m address-less,” Cricket, whose given name is Corinne, explains. “We just don’t have postal or garbage service.”

Except in jest. “I’m homeless,” jokes an easygoing bachelor named Donald who goes by Donovan, “but I’m a hopeless homebody.” Few are more connected to a wheeled home than this man, who is balding and wears a key and heart on a necklace, and says his great-grandmother lived in a wagon. He took his nickname (“Donald” plus “van”) from a vehicle, and now he resides in a janky green 1991 Ford bus.

Donovan in front of the 1991 Ford schoolbus he calls home.

“Everybody loves a school bus,” Donovan says. “I don’t get many people frowning at me, even with the condition that it’s in.” Inside, poetry is scrawled on walls above a briefcase full of stickers, a TV and DVD player, a laptop, and a cardboard box full of bright yellow lemons.

“I have yet to make lemonade,” he adds with a grin.

Donovan collects scrap metal and aluminum cans. He has “one baby mama and one ex-wife,” and a son who lives in a different bus in a different neighborhood. He says he has a black belt in karate and he’s worked at Olive Garden, Red Lobster, temp agencies, marijuana farms and FedEx, but a sciatic injury has made manual labor impossible. “I’m scared of that pain,” he says.

A tiny fan on the bus points at the driver’s seat, where Donovan places a Buddha statue when he leaves. Two machetes hang near the door. The words “BangHer Bus” are painted across the front: Donovan came to Portland from California five years ago after a divorce, partly to “hook up.” It sometimes seems like a sad solo mission.

The driver’s side window on Donovan’s school bus.

“My friend’s always going on, ‘Why do you hold yourself down in your third chakra?’” Donovan says, apparently appreciating being kidded for his proclivities. “I’m like, ‘Damn, I like it here.’ Plus, I’m 50. Pretty soon I’m going to be too old to fuck.”

Many vehicles in the cluster on 33rd either don’t move or only move rarely, for short distances. This may be because they have mechanical problems, or they are trailers with nothing to tow them, or their owners don’t want to risk a crash or getting pulled over for expired tags. Donovan’s bus, on the other hand, like Tom and Don’s Rallye, sometimes disappears for days. When on 33rd, he parks next to a grassy field near the north end of the group. Others there include Breck, who lives in a tent, Apple, who sets up a hammock near his minivan, and Tim.

Tim, wearing a Portland Trail Blazers T-shirt over pants that hold three knives, recalls past hopes and dreams as a youth pastor at a Las Vegas church, or after he bought a small yacht at age 23 that he’d take out on Lake Meade in Nevada. He joined the Navy three days after September 11, 2001, but didn’t make it through boot camp due to a dental emergency. More recently, he’d planned to move to Mexico to open a scuba diving business. The high point of his life was the birth of his daughter, Rylee, in 2008. “I cried when they gave her a shot,” he says, but the two haven’t spoken in a year. Tim once lived “120 steps” from a bar in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and still carries a Green Bay Packers lighter. Now, he says, “I’ll always be an addict.”

At the southern end of camp, near Cricket and Chaos, the people and vehicles are different, but the attachment between them is just as strong. Tan and striking, with steely eyes and two nose rings, Abby graduated from Paul Mitchell beauty school in downtown Portland and got her hairstylist license, but she hasn’t worked in salons. She doesn’t like nails, she explains, and doing hair is “a lot of pressure.” She and her boyfriend share a maroon van, since their pullout camper was towed. They also own two Jeeps, without doors, and they fell in love on four wheels. “Our first date was wheeling,” Abby says. “It’s our thing.”

No one on 33rd, though, loves vehicles more than Chaos.

Chaos, whose given name is Brett, grew up on his grandparents’ trucking yard, where he learned how to fix motor vehicles of all kinds. He has intense blue eyes, sometimes bloodshot, tattoos and scars, and perpetually grimy hands.

As his nickname suggests, Chaos has a hard side. Much of his adult life seems to have been a dance with cops, courts and corrections, often involving motor vehicles. His Oregon Judicial Department online file starts in 1999, at age 18, with a conviction for driving with a suspended license. He has more than 30 cases, including felonies, and is a registered sex offender. He’s been convicted of delivering controlled substances to a minor, failure to report as a sex offender, driving while his license was suspended or revoked, and fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer.

Chaos admits that he has a second-degree rape conviction, which he claims he’s innocent of. He characterizes that part of his record as “housing poison,” since sex offenders are generally ineligible for federally subsidized housing programs and often can’t pass background screenings. They are also barred from many homeless shelters and transitional housing programs.

The 39-year-old has had selfless moments. A 2014 social media post details a day when, during lunch break, a co-worker started choking. Chaos used the Heimlich maneuver “and he puked all over my hands,” Chaos wrote. “The kids alive though woooo hooooo.”

Afterward, Chaos recalls, the boss walked up and asked who had done the Heimlich, and Chaos said he’d done it himself. “He was like, ‘Oh, good job. Here’s 10 bucks,’” Chaos says. The staffing firm he worked for gave him free lunches for a week. “It was kind of a big deal.”

Chaos, Cricket and others interviewed in the wild, noisy, occasionally dangerous environment on 33rd often shared their stories in fragments, leaving holes that were not always possible to fill in. Chaos abruptly walked away from interviews, or hung up when called. Other times, pressing matters interrupted, such as helping a friend whose car had broken down.

Cricket, 45, says she grew up “privileged,” in a nearby suburb. Her father and grandfather were Portland police officers, she says, and she claims to have an ancestor, Julius Caesar Moreland, after whom two city neighborhoods are named. She waxes nostalgic about family gatherings at an uncle’s place on Mount Hood, where people ate kebabs, played yard darts, and hiked. Forthright and amiable, with bright red glasses, a tight ponytail and a gap-toothed grin, she was married for 12 years, giving birth to a son and a daughter before her husband left them in Yakima, Washington. The pair later divorced. Her dad provided a temporary refuge, but he eventually “couldn’t stand” Cricket and her daughter being there, so he kicked them out.

“We became homeless, and that’s when I started to use drugs again,” she says.

In 2008, Cricket’s mom — who nicknamed her — died unexpectedly from a blood clot.

“A couple hours before she died, she told me her leg was really bothering her, and I told her to go to the hospital, and she said ‘I will, in the morning,’ and I said ‘I love you,’ and that was the last thing I ever said to her.”

Cricket and Chaos met on an online dating site in 2015, Cricket recalls. “Then one night, he came over to my hotel room, and he hasn’t left ever since,” she says. At one point, they lived in a tent behind a trucking company. Eventually, Chaos “hustled up” a car, Cricket says, “traded that off for a pickup, and … we ended up having a motor home.” Cricket’s daughter is grown up now, and they stay in touch, but she doesn’t like visiting Cricket on 33rd.

Cricket and Chaos next to their 1991 Allegro Bay mobile home.

After parking their Allegro Bay on 33rd in May, Chaos starts fixing cars there. He turns a 1978 Holiday Rambler into a workshop strewn with tools ranging from pliers to a metal inert gas welder. As he waits for his probation to expire, he dreams of opening his own shop, Chaos Mechanics. Cricket, who has scrubbed houses as a “professional sparkler” at a cleaning company called Sparkling Palaces, has a full-time job in a warehouse and gets up at 7 a.m.

Chaos has played a key role in the fast growth of the community, where he is kind of a one-man R.V. distribution center. He gleans ramshackle, end-of-life mobile homes, often for free, on OfferUp or Craigslist, towing them using the couple’s black GMC Yukon or Ford F-150. He has culled six from a single relocating storage facility.

Chaos works on a truck while Buddy hangs around.

“Everybody’s always begging for an R.V.,” Chaos explains, “but I pick and choose who I give them to.”

The surfeit of mobile homes reflects the state of Oregon’s manufacturing history. Companies including Beaver Motorcoach, Holiday Rambler, Safari Trek and Winnebago have all built products here. The cost of decommissioning older mobile homes, though, which often contain flammable or toxic materials, including asbestos, creates an incentive for owners to give them away. Three years ago, city officials charged a man with 13 misdemeanors, including abandoning 11 R.V.s without a license.

Chaos isn’t worried. “It’s not a crime at all,” he says of his redistribution work. “I’ve got papers on all these.” He says the Oregon DMV’s closure makes the process easier: “Right now, you can’t do DMV.”

Summer: Ice Cream Socials and Axe Battles

Amid more than 100 consecutive nights of protests and riots sparked by reports of feds in unmarked vans kidnapping protesters in downtown Portland, the national media shines a bright light on the city throughout the summer. Cops use force thousands of times; buildings citywide fill with boarded-up windows and graffiti. A free, makeshift kitchen named Riot Ribs feeds activists who fill the streets.

Far from the TV crews, the Portlanders on 33rd are equally generous. Tom and Don give visitors cinnamon rolls; Donovan offers up Mountain Dew. Chaos manages to get a working air conditioner atop the Allegro Bay to replace its broken one, and he and Cricket open their newly air-conditioned home to sweaty neighbors and share Moose Tracks ice cream and Milk Duds.

More than candy, the aid the couple provides to neighbors can be lifesaving. One night, a woman knocks on Cricket’s door, begging her to call 911, which she does. “A couple weeks later, she came back and thanked me,” Cricket says. “She was having a massive heart attack, and she would have died.”

Chaos and Cricket have come to think of themselves almost as parental figures within the community. “I’m Dad,” Chaos says at one point. Cricket has experience as a certified nursing assistant, she says, so if locals get hurt, she “doctors them up.” Chaos mends their motors.

Another example of mutual aid is provided by Driea, a muscular young woman with short hair, a crystal necklace and an eyebrow piercing, who has life-threatening allergic reactions to bee stings — no small concern in this urban ecology, full of wildflowers and bees. “There’s literally five minutes before I have to get an EpiPen or [go to] a hospital,” she says. Driea builds strength by “rebuilding aluminum walls” and sometimes draws on her arms in pink Sharpie out of “boredom.” She lives with Boomer, a young man who cruises around on a Mongoose BMX. And she counts on her friend Boo in a nearby trailer, who has an EpiPen.

Driea leans out of the door of her mobile home.

Regular harassment, and violence, from people driving by brings the residents of this community closer.

“It seems like the angriest drivers in the world are on 33rd,” says J.P. Payne, a volunteer with Free Hot Soup, a group that delivers burritos and homemade cookies, plus masks, tarps, tents and blankets from the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which covers Multnomah County and the City of Portland. “They swerve right at you,” she adds.

Residents also report drivers shooting BB guns in their direction, tossing powerful fireworks, and yelling profanity. Or else just scolding them. “We actually have people come by once in a while and yell, ‘Get a job!’” Cricket says. “I’m like, ‘I do!’” Pruss says that these kinds of attacks are commonly reported in the communities he’s studied.

Free Hot Soup volunteers, Andee Shess, left, and Jessie Vickery, right, deliver supplies to Driea. The volunteers also deliver groceries, blankets, and other supplies to the residents of 33rd.

Some lay on their horn as they pass. That’s when Chaos, the group’s self-appointed security guard, springs into action.

“As soon as they honk at me, if I got my keys on me, it’s on!” he says. He hops in a car and gives chase. Another R.V. resident says that Chaos has followed some drivers “all the way back to their house.”

Cricket claims she’s reined him in. “I don’t like to fight,” she says. “He has calmed down a lot.” The change is hard to discern in Chaos’s own description of his behavior, though. “Used to be, just handle it, and ask questions later,” he says. “Now it’s ask questions, and then handle it.”

“I have no shame in my game,” he concludes with a shrug.

Chaos, who drives all the time, does not have an Oregon driver’s license. It’s a brazen way to sidestep state I.D. and driver’s license residency requirements, which require a verifiable address, something many vehicle residents struggle with. Such requirements are becoming more stringent nationwide, in the era of REAL ID.

To hear Cricket and Chaos talk, though, you’d think he has a wink-and-a-nod relationship with police. “They know me,” Chaos says.

“When he gets pulled over, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s you!’” Cricket adds. “And actually, in front of me, [police officers] asked him, ‘Have we ever done anything about you driving? And we never will.’”

Do Portland police look the other way when people are driving without a license? “I wouldn’t say they look the other way; I’d say they probably have other higher-priority calls holding,” explains Sgt. Jennifer Butcher, who helps lead the bureau’s North Precinct, which has responsibility for 33rd Drive. Portland police have been busy, responding to a wave of deadly violence; their headquarters and the North Precinct have also been targeted by arson attacks.

Spasmodic, interpersonal violence among those on 33rd rises with the temperatures. On July 24, the sound of honking interrupts interviews near the south end of the line of campers. Several hundred feet away, Driea walks into the road, causing drivers to brake as she swings a long-handled axe at an unknown foe.

Its blade flashes in the sun, but misses. Stopped motorists dial 911. The combatants disappear from view. Then a Kia Spectra nose-dives into a ditch. Vehicle residents shake their heads at the scene.

“My boyfriend got jumped over a generator,” Driea explains days later.

“These fools hit me in the face with a bat four times,” Boomer adds.

“They tried to bust in the door,” Driea continues, “so I went over to reach for the bat, and he already met me and he was like, ‘Here, I got this.’ Dude said he wanted his shit back, and Boomer said, ‘I don’t think so, it’s not your shit till you pay for it; I don’t just give shit away, bro, especially generators.’”

“Dude came up behind me and fucking grabbed me,” Boomer chimes in. “I grabbed her by her face and put her on the ground.”

Much of what Driea and Boomer say in this and other interviews is unclear, but their words help give a sense of the disorder — external and internal — that hold sway in the area at times.

“They both had him pinned to the ground at that point, so I said fuck it, and I run into the house and I grab the axe and I said, ‘Y’all got to move,’” Driea continues. “As I looked at [Boomer] … he was just gushing blood out of his face. The cops are coming at that point, so I go, ‘You need to get out of here.’ [But as Boomer tried to leave] he’s just getting further and further into a blackout. He goes walking out of the house … and this dude tries to stop him, puts himself in front of him … and when he goes to step away, this bitch tried to hit him with her car.”

“There’s cars getting lit on fire, there’s all kinds of shit happening,” Boomer adds.

“It’s been crazy out here,” Driea says. “Everybody doesn’t even give a fuck anymore.”

Five minutes after the axe-swinging, five police cars pull up, lights flashing. “Now’s when the real damage begins,” an R.V. resident onlooker says. Cops get out near Boomer and Driea’s vehicle.

Boomer and Driea are in their early 30s and live in a fifth-wheel trailer they got from Chaos. They have been houseless for a decade and are “stuck” because of felonies, says Driea. She tells the cops that she was defending her man, because he’s all she has left.

“My mom died in January. I lost my fucking dog in March. It’s been a rough year.”

While I witnessed the axe-swinging, Driea and Boomer’s account of the complex incident could not be corroborated or refuted by police records because “there was no report written” about the incident, a police official tells me over email. “Why not?” I ask Sergeant Butcher.

“We need to actually have people talk to us and be willing to be victims or witnesses,” she responds, noting that she was not personally involved in the incident. “Unfortunately, what happens sometimes is … neither side wants to be victims of any sort of crime.”

If Chaos and Boomer evoke The Fast and the Furious, others on 33rd manifest a mellower vibe. In Tom and Don’s case, it’s The Odd Couple.

Inside Tom’s R.V., one of the few on the strip that can reach highway speeds, a U.S. flag is draped behind the dash; a pile of cannabis buds sits atop a bookshelf. Whenever they can actually hear each other over the passing traffic, the two seem to almost enjoy talking trash.

How often do they argue? “Every day,” Don says. “He’s used to living alone, and I’m used to being alone. Shit happens. He says I can’t hear; I say he mumbles.”

“The traffic don’t help either,” Tom adds. “Huh?” responds Don.

“The traffic don’t help either,” Tom repeats, loudly.

“My hearing is degraded, and of course, my speech,” Don explains, referencing his 2018 operation for tongue cancer.

“He can’t find jack shit; he doesn’t pick up anything,” Don says. “He’s a walking mess.”

“I just call his sister up and say he’s an asshole,” Tom concludes, referring to his ex-wife, Don’s older sister.

“Yeah, I just tell my sister he’s an asshole,” Don echoes. “If I really want him to get the message, I just tell my sister. Because he won’t listen to me.”

Late summer brings easy moments — flocks of birds wheel, people barbecue curbside, wild blackberries provide free, tart deliciousness.

“I’m kind of getting into the mind frame where I’m thankful for this situation, to be honest,” Abby says, taking a break from building a bench out of tires to describe her “forever camping” lifestyle. “It keeps you away from the internet. It keeps you in touch with humanity, nature … you explore more.”

There are dual bees nests in the back corners of Bumblebee, Chaos’s 1988 Toyota Corolla FX hatchback, which he found “in the grass.” He “nap gassed” them, Chaos explains — perhaps with a do-it-yourself bee smoker — then “they all got scared and they flew off.” Cricket finds purpose in her new job. “I love it, and they actually love me too,” she says. “They said they haven’t ever seen anybody stock that many boxes on their first day in their life.”

Hanging out inside Cricket and Chaos’s motor home, Boomer brags about making an indestructible skateboard, in a gravelly voice that recalls Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “I totally found a piece of, like, it’s basically like, OK, so: You know those Brink’s security trucks?” Boomer begins. He found a bulletproof windowpane, used a Dremel tool to shape it, then decorated it with glow-in-the-dark paint. “So now I have a bulletproof skateboard!”

Driea on a skateboard on 33rd.

When I ask about the dangers of living in and around motor homes and other vehicles, Cricket voices caution. “We don’t want to be leaking gas or anything like that,” she says. “We don’t like the smell.”

The others? No big deal. “I like the smell of gas!” Boomer responds. “But that’s for a whole other reason.” “Me?” Chaos pipes up. “I like the smell of turpentine.”

Tom and Don are no longer living together. After a fight, Don has gone to sleep under a bridge.

Donovan roams hither and thither, collecting scrap, hanging with his son, seeking “girlfriend material.” He tools around 33rd on a shiny Fuji mountain bike and explains that it’s how he keeps in shape. The pandemic has crimped his game though. “I haven’t really been sleeping with very many girls lately,” he says wistfully, “because the girls seem to have changed somehow.”

A cracked glass pipe on the dashboard of the BangHer Bus is a reminder of the community’s drug of choice: methamphetamine. It’s evinced in the endless tinkering, the small bag of tiny, clear rectangular shards casually tossed on an R.V. countertop, like little windowpanes for a Lego village. When it’s discussed, meth is often presented as mundane.

Donovan says it helps him “stay even,” when prescriptions for Ritalin or Concerta are unaffordable. “That shit’s like $500 a bottle,” he says. “Life is rough when all your happiness is stained with the black of depression. It’s like trying to think through black, dark syrup.”

Cricket also says her use is “self-medicating.” For Chaos, she says, “it’s more of a motivation thing.”

Several even suggest that meth protects against Covid-19. Such attitudes could help explain why, amid a ballooning public health crisis that has killed 10 times as many people as car crashes do in a typical year, face masks are never worn by the vehicle residents of 33rd. Payne, the Free Hot Soup volunteer, says she hasn’t seen anyone here wearing the masks her group gives away.

“The whole mask thing — I think it’s hilarious,” Chaos says. “It makes my job as a booster a lot easier.” It’s not clear if he’s joking.

Don has a different take. “Now everybody has to be like me,” he says, a flag bandana around his neck. “With my surgery and what I consider disfigurement, I’m glad to wear a face cover.”

It’s not clear if anyone living on 33rd actually gets sick from Covid-19 during the summer or fall. Overall, Oregon has had comparatively low per-capita coronavirus cases. Medical emergencies on 33rd shared by Portland Fire & Rescue for the period of April 1 to September 30, in response to a public records request, included a seizure, unconsciousness, a traffic accident, an assault, trauma and chest pain — one instance of each. Among the many issues inherent in day-to-day survival here, few vehicle residents, even older ones with underlying health conditions, worry about the virus.

Just after 1 a.m. on August 8, Portland Fire & Rescue receives a call about “fire and smoke coming from vehicles” on 33rd, says Lt. Rich Chatman, Portland Fire & Rescue spokesman. Residents of the Dignity Village tiny houses later say they heard a series of three explosions, possibly tires, fuel or propane tanks. Firefighters find two vehicles on fire. One turns into “a cinder on wheels,” recalls villager Scott Layman.

“Most of the villagers here are law-abiding, at least to a certain degree,” says Lisa Larson, the Dignity Village spokeswoman. “Out there, they have no one that they’re answering to.”

Lisa, Chairperson of Dignity Village and a resident here for 10 years, with her dog Jello.

Is there a difference between the two communities, in terms of public safety? To Lieutenant Chatman, any difference is minimal. “Where you have houselessness, you have issues that involve a 911 response,” he says. (The village shelters about 60 people, while the R.V. community is home to perhaps 50. Between April 1 and September 30, records show, the agency sent first responders to the R.V.s on 33rd eight times, versus five times to Dignity Village.)

In the R.V.s, profane screaming matches sometimes erupt between unseen occupants. One day, Cricket admits that her relationship with Chaos sometimes gets physically violent.

“It’s both of us,” she says. “Our tempers just go. But we regret it afterward.” In a later interview, she says that Chaos has “kidnapped” her, twice, by “firing up the motor home and taking off with me in it.”

Two people interviewed on 33rd have connections to a prison gang, the Krude Rude Brood (KRB), which has been linked to white supremacy, dealing methamphetamine, torture and homicide. Chaos says he’s “retired” from the Brood, and that he isn’t a white supremacist. At one point, though, he uses a racial slur; another time he defends the group as being “not a gang … more of a covenant, a family.” But its function in his life, he says, comes from his incarceration.

“Prison. I was in prison,” Chaos explains. “I didn’t really join. It just happens.”

Symbols seen on T-shirts and tattoos of people on 33rd include Iron Crosses (without swastikas), which are a link to Nazi Germany for some. A man named David takes a break from working on his pickup truck and pulls up a sleeve to show a KRB tattoo. He says he lives in a Honda Civic in a different spot. In a diatribe notable for its anger — not toward people of color, but at what he sees as a cold, uncaring society — he rails against a landlord who evicted him prematurely, an unemployment check delayed due to clerical error, an attorney who duped him in court, a judge who didn’t care, a mayor and a governor whom he feels should be in jail.

“They should be happy that I didn’t start robbing banks again, because I could have chose that,” says David, who is wearing a rumpled baseball cap from a local public school, the Wilson High Trojans.

In prison, David says, “you have to align” with a gang or “no one’s going to have your back.” Like Chaos, he argues against the “white supremacist” label, and emphasizes that there are Black members in the gang. “I am Native American, and I am Brood,” David says, specifying that he’s one-quarter Cherokee. “I wouldn’t join a white supremacist gang; it’s not my thing.”

As Black Lives Matter protests crest in Portland and around the country, the links to the Krude Rude Brood are disquieting. Is the vehicle community on 33rd a white supremacist throwback to Oregon’s racist past? A reflection of America’s highest-in-the-world incarceration rate? Most in the vehicle community appear to be white, but that may reflect the fact that Portland is one of America’s whitest big cities, only 6 percent Black.

During the few occasions I see Black people on 33rd, I don’t sense a racial animus. One evening, I find Chaos repairing the motor mount on the sedan of a Black client named Debra, who is sitting next to a Black man named Jamar. She says that she was stranded in the parking lot of an auto parts business when she met Chaos. He got her back on the road, for the right price. “It was going to cost me well over $300,” she says. She paid Chaos $60.

“This guy made a difference in my life that day,” she says, referring to Chaos, who is busily wrenching under her car. “He knows his work.”

By the end of summer, things are getting ugly.

A machete-versus-nail-gun fight results in a hospitalization, Donovan says. “Our homie was just shot a week ago, over some bullshit,” Driea says. (A police official declined a records request due to the ongoing investigation.) In a separate incident, Chaos pummels someone for something they didn’t do. He has no regrets: “All that did was just put that thing in people’s minds: Hey, don’t fuck with Chaos.”

After some of her stuff is stolen and a neighbor points a rifle at her, Abby says that her gratitude has evaporated. “Trust is not a thing out here,” she says.

The police notice, too. Sergeant Butcher says that officers have only been going out on “priority” calls lately — fights, weapons, violence — but that “there was definitely an increase” in such calls for service to 33rd, “as far as like, wow, it’s turning violent, people are arming themselves with whatever, a machete.”

The community’s appearance devolves. Grassy areas and roadsides fill with detritus: scrap, bike parts, tires, old couches, wooden pallets, generators, rugs, several burned car chassis, rotting bags of broccoli and animal carcasses.

A grassy area near 33rd filled with scrap metal, tires, and other detritus.

“To some, that’s just a pile of garbage,” says a man named Mike, who lives in a white van and says he makes $600 to $800 a week as a licensed scrap metal collector. “To me, that’s $3,000 to $5,000.”

Tim’s take for three heavy garbage bags of aluminum cans is $54. Through a friend’s Wi-Fi hot spot, he receives dispatches from another world, including a Facebook message from his mom announcing a vacation in Puerto Rico. He steers his energies into the evolving shanty he’s built around the PT Cruiser, which now has working fluorescent lights, shelves and a smaller, two-person dome tent inside its pallet-and-tarp walls.

Inside the structure, Tim and I sit across from his girlfriend as he digs under piles to retrieve a lockbox. “That’s one of four,” he says. He dials a four-digit combination and glows as he exhibits the cherished treasures inside — crystals, rings, silver, brass, collectible coins. He pauses, looks stricken. “I’m going to freak out.” A necklace with precious metal rings on it is gone.

Across a field from Tim’s spot, on the other side of a huge thicket of blackberry bramble, sits a 2,000-square-foot, 1951 single family home on NE Sunderland Avenue — the only house with plumbing for half a mile. A young man named Josue answers the door, along with three dogs. He says his grandmother owns the house. When asked about the evolving situation along 33rd, he shrugs: “We’re OK with it. Just trash-wise, it’s a mess.” Also, he says, they’re concerned about the swearing, yelling and couples fighting.

“I think we’ve done OK,” says Donovan, who also collects scrap. “Yeah, we’ve made some messes. There have been some cars peeled out here. But there hasn’t been a surge in crime. The cops aren’t here all the time. We police ourselves.”

Fall: Smoke Rises

September brings hot, dangerous winds from out-of-control wildfires, and the worst air quality of any city in the world. During a Labor Day windstorm, huge falling trees and branches barely miss crushing mobile homes on 33rd. Thick plumes of smoke clog windpipes.

For people whose homes are small, and porous, it is calamitous.

“It was hard, yesterday, to breathe at all,” Driea says, the day after the windstorm, as a red, angry sun contemplates the haze. “[But] it is what it is — I got an inhaler.”

“That first night, when that wind kicked in and the smoke came, it was like nuclear winter,” Donovan says. “There was so much dirt and smoke in the air, it just seemed like it was flashing.”

City workers make changes to the area: They bring a new red portable toilet, but they also install a barbed-wire fence around a shack that houses a pump station, part of the city’s sewer and stormwater system. Its faucet had been a source of free water, residents of 33rd say.

Chaos washes his hands with water stored in his Allegro Bay.

Cricket blames the restriction on those who took precious resources for granted. “They’d drive their R.V.s and cars up in there, to fill up their tanks, and leave them there,” she says. A city spokeswoman says the fence went up after repeated acts of vandalism and “to protect workers [from] trash and human feces.”

The loss of water in the remote location, during a pandemic, combined with suffocating smoke and historic drought, underscores what Pruss calls “the disaffiliation” of vehicle residents: their “disconnection from the affiliative bonds of societies and their systems.” On 33rd, people use plainer words: Jay has “a sour taste in my mouth for society”; Abby feels “hurt, and sad in humanity.”

This break from society stems in part from laws that essentially criminalize vehicle dwelling. Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney at the National Homelessness Law Center, helps compile the organization’s Prohibited Conduct Chart, which tracks restrictive laws affecting unhoused people. Taken together, the “patchwork of laws” affecting people living in vehicles “can function as a blanket ban,” she says. (The City of Portland has at least 11 such rules, city codes show.) A lot of cities, including Portland, use variations of what Bauman calls “move on, move along, get out of here” orders. The passage of such laws is “going gangbusters,” she says.

“It’s not illegal to live in a car,” Portland transportation spokesman Dylan Rivera says in an email. “You just have to keep moving it.”

Few on 33rd have current vehicle registration stickers on their license plates, and fewer still have a plan for, or hope of, getting into an apartment. In the dozen reporting trips I made to the area, I never saw a professional outreach worker.

When Don got a call from Transition Projects, the largest shelter provider in Portland, he says he was screened over the phone, only to arrive at a suburban location to find not an apartment but a Salvation Army rehab program, with breathalyzers and curfews. “I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. This is not what I asked for.’” He says he missed a chance at another housing offer when he couldn’t charge his cell phone.

Driea says that she and Boomer have been waiting to get housing through a nonprofit for “five years, seven maybe … it’s been a process.” She gave the staff at the nonprofit phone numbers for Dignity Village, but it’s not clear anyone will be able to reach her that way.

Some on 33rd find a refuge in nomadism. “We’re of those bloodlines: the hunters, the wanderers, the explorers, the pioneers,” Donovan says. They see their living situation as far superior to tents and doorways. “People who live in R.V.s, we’re the upper class,” he explains. “I try to encourage people who live in tents — I worked for this. It takes a lot of hard work, but you don’t have to be in a tent.”

By October, the smoke is dissipating, but the rains are returning, and the grassy field near Tim, Breck and Apple’s homes is turning into a mud slick. Temperatures fall into the 20s, and dump trucks full of leaves begin their annual pilgrimage to the composting facility next to Dignity Village. On October 9, the R.V. community on 33rd hits a pandemic-era high of 35 R.V.s and roughly 100 total vehicles.

Muddy tracks from cars moving around a grassy area near 33rd after a heavy rainfall.

“We had a loss,” Tim says that day. “Our friend Apple had a stroke. I was just coming back right as it happened. I get here, I see him, his eyes are open, he’s laying on his back, and he’s just not there. He was still alive, but he was just gone. Called the paramedics, they came, they were rolling him around so they could get him on a stretcher. He was just stiff as a board.”

Apple, Tim continues, was an older guy, funny, who liked to imitate the cartoon hero Captain Underpants’ signature “Tra-la-laaa!” catchphrase. Apple’s real name was Thomas.

In the days after the paramedics left with Apple, Tim called every place he could think of, including the hospital they’d said they were taking him to, but he couldn’t figure out what had happened to Apple. When Apple’s brother-in-law showed up, Tim broke the bad news to him. The brother-in-law was later able to ascertain that Apple had died the night after he’d left the camp.

No obituaries pop up online. Multnomah County officials can’t confirm the death, even with a first and last name. “That doesn’t mean that person didn’t die in the circumstances described to you, but only that the case was not forwarded to the medical examiner’s office,” a spokeswoman writes.

On 33rd, Apple’s legacy lives on. The day after his death, Rowdy, a Chihuahua that mated with a pit bull named Beethoven, has four puppies. Tim keeps one, which he names Apple. People swing in the hammock and sing “Tra-la-laaa!” Tim swears he catches a nocturnal glimpse of Apple sitting in the driver’s seat of his minivan.

Tim stores away personal items on the back of his Chrysler PT Cruiser.

The death hits Breck hardest, Tim says, because the two were “really close.”

Breck is a single man, maybe 60 years old, who wanders around the grassy area outside his tent, near Tim’s shanty. Donovan describes him as “cool as fuck, but crazier than most.” He’s friendly, but he doesn’t seem willing or able to engage in conversation. Instead, he mumbles folksy sayings such as, “I’m pretty small in the big picture of life. Just a grain of sand.”

“Who knows who they are anymore?” he asks the wind.

Another, “I’m just a cowboy going down the road,” seems fitting on October 21, the drizzly day transportation officials finally come back in force, with green tow-warning stickers and police. Breck is on his bicycle, approaching the camp while pulling a trailer full of metal cuttings. He sees flashing lights, slows, walks his bike. He looked dazed and confused.

Is the Portland Bureau of Transportation resuming stricter enforcement? “We are contemplating a revised response” is all its spokesman, Dylan Rivera, will share.

For hours, the agency’s cars move slowly up the line of mobile homes. Officials chat with the residents, affixing green tags to unoccupied vehicles. They are “pleasant,” Abby says.

Driea gesticulates while speaking with two officials as the blue tarp covering the front of her trailer flaps in the wind. She appears small and vulnerable in her hoodie — almost a different person than the axe-wielding fighter of July. Chaos speaks with a man with a long salt-and-pepper beard whose arms are often crossed, then departs to rescue vehicles by driving them away. “I was being nice,” Chaos explains later. “They were saying the same thing they always say: Move your shit. This isn’t your right-of-way, this isn’t your shop. I’m like, whatever.”

Donovan says the scene is practically an annual ritual: “Right before winter, they stir the pot, making everyone move,” he texts. “What they are doing to us out here is brutal.”

Donovan sits in the front of his schoolbus next to his Buddha.

Rivera writes in an email that the agency has taken a “humanitarian” approach. “If they are interested in help from our staff, we work with social service agencies to provide shelter for them. Each circumstance is different, and we try to meet people where they are at.”

With people worried about winter’s encroachment and city tows, the October 18 fire that put Cricket in the hospital and turned her life “upside down” three nights earlier seems like ancient history. The only visual reminder is a faded patch of sawdust on the asphalt.

“It’s been a weird couple of days,” Chaos says. His hands show dried blood and pustules. “I’m just going through it, you know?”

He has become almost inured to R.V. fires. A fire two years earlier, he says, resulted from a misunderstanding with a carburetor he’d named “Carter.” “My whole dashboard and front end was engulfed in about three seconds,” he remembers. “I went right through the inferno. I was singed head to toe. I had no eyebrows.”

There are “inherent vulnerabilities” that come with vehicle residency, particularly cold and fire, says Lieutenant Chatman of Portland Fire & Rescue. He describes how two people died in a van in Portland in 2019, when they brought a hibachi grill inside overnight and odorless CO2 built up in the enclosed space.

Geese fly south overhead as humans struggle to balance heating needs and fire risk amid the dropping temperatures. Donovan rustles up an antique coal-fired Mt. Vernon laundry stove for the BangHer Bus, which he describes as “so leaky that I could run a Coleman stove full blast all night” without a problem. But he hasn’t installed the antique.

When Tom retreats to the back bed of his Rallye to sleep on a cold night, Don leaves a stove burner on. The pair has reunited. It’s a new chance to harangue one another, but it also may have saved Don’s life. “A week and a half ago, I almost froze my ass off,” Don admits, describing the conditions under the bridge. “I can’t fucking do it anymore. I’ll fucking die of exposure.”

Tom and Don are thinking about moving on, but they wonder where to go. “I just wish the city would give us a place to park, off the beaten path,” Tom says.

Programs for vehicle residents, often called “safe lots,” exist, but they have proved tricky and pricey. There are small safe lots in two Portland suburbs, but none in the city. Denis Theriault, spokesman for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, says that a pilot project, run by Catholic Charities, went nowhere after “only one church expressed interest.”

Some cities have managed to find money for more ambitious R.V. parking programs during the pandemic. On Pier 94 in San Francisco, as part of Project Room Key, which Salon calls “a runaway success story,” the city bought 120 R.V.s for $90,000 apiece, hired three nurses and two doctors to stay on-site, and gave participants 15-inch TVs and iPads, plus vouchers for I.D. cards and driver’s licenses.

But such examples are few and far between. Other cities have struggled with the model. A safe lot in San Diego “doesn’t remotely meet the need AND it excludes people in R.V.s,” writes Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center. Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute tried one “briefly,” spokesman Aaron Long writes, but it “didn’t work out well.”

Winter Is Coming, Again

Hours before a full moon Halloween, Chaos says he’s finally off probation. “I got to do this drug assessment thing, but I’m not worried about it.” During the pandemic, even the drug tests, he says, are phone-based. There’s no peeing in a cup.

He could see it as new freedom, or a step toward his dream of opening his own shop, but Chaos isn’t celebrating; he expects no form letter, has no mailbox. “I haven’t seen my P.O. in six months because of Covid,” he says. “I’ve dodged like 10 bullets because of it.”

(A Multnomah County spokeswoman confirmed some of Chaos’s assertions, but she also made it clear that the situation is different for every “justice-involved individual,” depending on many factors, including the court order, the parole or probation officer, the program, and the risk to public safety.)

Chaos is working on a car, as always. For the first time, though, no one else is around. His hair is buzzed short. “Had to,” he says. “My hair was singed.”

The blackened generator from the fire lies in the grass. Buddy yips inside the R.V.

Chaos’s face darkens. “They got the boat, the Bee and my Ranger this morning,” he says, referring to city tows. Then he hops in his pickup and drives it away.

Chaos in the driver’s seat of his Allegro Bay.

Three days later, Americans will vote President Trump out, signaling the beginning of the end of his administration’s cuts to health, housing, food and services. The stock market soars, but the economic forces affecting poor people remain, at least so far, virtually unchanged. Portland’s rental prices flatten but do not fall. Opportunities remain scarce after shutdowns that cost 40 million jobs. Emily Benfer, a lawyer who works with Princeton’s Eviction Lab project, warns that 28 million Americans could face eviction.

Some of these people, Bauman says, will move into vehicles, as “the first line of defense against having to sleep out on the streets.” The logic is unassailable: a locking door, mobility, privacy, storage, safety.

Here’s how Driea describes life in her small trailer, compared to life in a tent: “You don’t have to worry about critters and animals. It’s yours. This is yours. Wherever it goes, you go with it. You can haul your shit easier, you don’t have to do it in a bike cart or trips; you just throw it all in and drive it down the road. At the same time, it makes you feel more comfortable. A safety thing, I guess.”

But by now, even Driea is talking about “going inside.” Most residents of 33rd agree that vehicle-living is not safe in winter. Yet with houseless populations at an all-time high, according to some measures, this particular lifestyle, and culture, seem likely to grow.

“As more people are mobilized by natural, social, economic and personal disaster,” Pruss says, we may see a broader societal change, what he calls a “nomadic turn.” Scenes like the one on 33rd, then, may pop up more frequently in the months and years to come.

Tim shows off a black, long-nosed medieval plague doctor mask, his plan for Halloween festivities the next day. His homesteading dream is history. “I want off this road,” he says. He’s got an R.V., but it’s filled with used needles. Once he cleans it out, he plans to take Apple (the puppy) and his girlfriend “as far south as I can get.”

Donovan plans on wintering in the bus for a second straight year. He’s hoping for company, texting me that he has “a girl back at the bus right now that I really like[;] hopefully she feels the same way.”

Abby has had enough. “I want to go home,” she says. She mentions Portland suburbs where she has family, where “you can breathe and feel relaxed.” She hasn’t acted on the feeling yet, because of shame. “I just have to get that big dry lump, swallow it down.”

Outside of Driea and Boomer’s trailer door, the indestructible skateboard is propped up. Across the street, a wheelchair is parked outside a Winnebago. Near the water shack, a young woman with red hair is smoking a cigarette next to her Hi-Lo trailer, watching her “pit-coyote” named Bingo cavort. “I lost my job and came out here,” she explains, declining to share a first name.

Driea’s mobile home parked on the side of 33rd.

Don gets off a city bus and walks back to Tom’s R.V., wearing tortoiseshell Wayfarers and carrying groceries. He’s received his pension check and plans to barbecue. “Probably steak,” he says. It will be a painful celebration. Chewing and swallowing, Don says, “hurts like a motherfucker,” but he does it so he “can taste something.” He’s thinking of getting his own R.V., or taking the “hard” step of going back to Transition Projects and asking for help, again.

“Today’s a mystery,” says Tom, munching a graham cracker and summoning the wisdom of someone who gets paid to help people move into new houses, and perhaps new lives. “Tomorrow’s a mystery. The ending’s a mystery.”

Across the city, Cricket heals in a warm hospital room, watching Ocean’s 8 and enjoying three square meals with “lots of protein.” She lost her wallet, purse and phone — all stolen from the Camry the night of the fire. But she’s found a new phone and the strength to walk again, overcoming “horrible, horrible pain.” Her adult daughter, who had been reluctant to visit her on 33rd, now sleeps in the room every night.

Cricket is particularly grateful to a phlebotomist — and fellow domestic violence survivor — who showed her compassion. “I had a bruise on my face, and she asked [about it],” Cricket says. A new attitude followed. “I was always putting [Chaos] first,” she says. “I’ve learned I need to take care of myself first before I take care of anybody else. And I’ve learned that I’m not alone. I felt so alone for so long.”

A system that seemed not to care about Cricket when she was living in a vehicle has now mobilized extensive resources, assigning her a peer support specialist, a social worker, a mental health clinician and a housing case manager. Her relationships with family members, including her sister — a doctor who sent her $1,000 for a new car — have blossomed again.

“I can’t go back [to 33rd],” Cricket says. “It’s too dirty, and I’m leaving [Chaos]. I can’t be abused anymore, and I’m not going to use drugs anymore.”

By the end of November, Cricket has moved into convalescent housing. She is also going to therapy and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She’s working again, part-time. She and her daughter apply for an apartment, with move-in funds from a nonprofit, Central City Concern.

Yet Cricket’s long-term housing stability, like her relationship with Chaos, is fraught with difficulties: She needs to find a way to pay market rent on a modest wage, while overcoming health challenges. She has not yet gone back for her Chihuahua, Buddy, who is still in the Allegro Bay on 33rd. She doesn’t like to think about her relationship as being violent, but she won’t go see Chaos alone anymore.

Cricket holds Buddy in the Allegro Bay at 33rd, now no longer her home.

Perhaps the biggest change isn’t housing or transportation or other people, but inside Cricket herself. Her belief in her own potential has totally changed. Maybe it was hidden in the fire, which she now calls “a blessing in a horrible disguise.” As terrible as it was, the turn of events has reconnected her to her family, to society, and given her a new vision of what life could be.

As she used to do with her own mom, Cricket now makes a practice of never saying “goodbye” to her daughter. Her parting words are, simply, “I love you.”

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The Shot-in-the-Eye Squad

As Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation, the rubber bullets and tear gas canisters started to fly. This epidemic of “blinding by police” inspired our unlikely network of survivors.

The Shot-in-the-Eye Squad

My mind raced in the seconds after I was shot.

I heard the gun go off and turned my head toward the sound, just in time to watch the spinning aluminum canister slam into my brow. Everything went black. I stumbled. When I regained my balance and opened my eyes, the sight in my right eye was gone. Something in my head told me the tear gas canister was the last thing I’d ever see clearly.

It was May 30, 2020. George Floyd’s death was still headlining most news reports. The country was finally (rightly) paying attention to police killings. Meanwhile, during the protests that followed, another less deadly but still alarming trend was developing: “blinding by police.”

According to Shot in the Head, a report released in September 2020 by Physicians for Human Rights, during the protests between May 26 and July 27 of last year, U.S. law enforcement officials shot 115 people in the head with “less lethal weapons.” Of these victims, at least 30 suffered permanent ocular damage.

“These were some of the worst injuries we’ve seen in a long time,” George Williams, M.D., former president and current spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), explained to me. “If our mission is to protect sight and we are seeing these injuries, we have to step up and say something.” The spike in ocular traumas associated with the protests caused the AAO to issue its first-ever public condemnation of law enforcement’s use of rubber bullets.

As a professional photojournalist, I’d been covering the protests outside the White House when I was shot. It’s perhaps needless to say that any eye-related injury is basically a photographer’s worst nightmare, tantamount to a musician going deaf.

While I dealt with the aftereffects of my own injury and tried to make sense of what had happened, I came up with a new mission for myself: I set out to meet as many of the other people blinded by the police as I could.

“It felt like they were playing Call of Duty.”

Earlier on the same day that I was injured in the nation’s capital, 400 miles away in Cleveland, John Sanders was shot in the face with a beanbag round. Lead pellets from the canvas bag ripped through his left eyelid and ruptured the globe of his eyeball.

I met John, a 24-year-old former journalism student, last July at his friend’s house in a middle-class neighborhood in Akron, Ohio. A self-assured, tall and slender Black man, John’s presence was calming. We sat at a picnic table in his suburban backyard and compared notes about our traumas. A plastic deer used for target practice listed to the side a couple of feet behind us.

John tells me how, in shock and worrying he’d be shot again, he lay down in the street. “You know, ’cause my eye was literally hanging out of my head,” he says in his nonchalant deep voice. “‘Don’t make yourself a target, get down and hopefully someone comes over and gets you.’” As he flattened himself against the asphalt, blood puddled under his head. Eventually a group of panicked protesters gathered around him and carried him off the street. He was stabilized and taken to the hospital.

“It almost seems like they were doing target practice or something,” John recalls. “I literally felt like they were playing Call of Duty out there.”

Unfortunately, John’s injuries were not virtual. In the first three months after being shot, he endured three surgeries: one to stitch up his eye; one enucleation (removal of the eye) and eyelid reconstruction; and one to fill in his orbit with fat from other parts of his body. He was also hospitalized for diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially life-threatening problem common among diabetics. John is sure it was due to his heightened stress and depression, a direct result of being partially blinded.

John Sanders was shot in the eye with a “less lethal” bean bag round fired by Cleveland police during protests in response to George Floyd’s death.

As police forces across the U.S. and the globe have grown more militarized, there has been a rise in injuries like John’s and mine — a result of the proliferation of “less lethal weapons” that are not designed to kill, yet leave many civilians with life-changing injuries.

In the peace that followed World War I, law enforcement and military officials around the world began developing new weapons for crowd control. The goal was to create tools that would afford authorities the ability to manage large groups of people without relying solely on violent baton charges and lethal force.

Chief among those new weapons was CS gas, more commonly known as tear gas. First discovered in 1928 by chemists at Middlebury College, tear gas was understood to be a less toxic substance than the CN gas used in the trenches of Europe. It soon became a common tool for crowd dispersal for police departments across the United States, including during labor strikes and civil rights marches.

In the 1960s, the British military developed rubber bullets as a “nonlethal” way to suppress protesters in Northern Ireland, and Argentine intelligence officers adapted electric cattle prods to torture detainees during interrogations. A few decades later, “less lethal weapons” emerged as an important growth sector for the international arms industry, leading to the development of new technologies.

Today, law enforcement and military forces alike have a wide array of less lethal weapons to draw upon. There are kinetic impact projectiles such as foam-nosed bullets, beanbags, pepper balls and wooden baton rounds, to name a few. There are chemical irritants such as tear gases, pepper spray and mace, as well as conducted energy devices such as Tasers and stun guns. Flash bangs and smoke grenades are used to disorient targets. Finally, many police departments across the U.S. are now using acoustic weapons such as the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), which emits an extremely high decibel sound designed to cause physical discomfort and dizziness.

On the same day that John and I were shot, Soren Stevenson was among a group of protesters in Minneapolis who tried to march onto the westbound lane of Interstate 35. Police were quick to arrive on the scene. Most of the protesters hadn’t even reached the on-ramp.

When calls went out for “white bodies to the front,” Soren volunteered. He’d just linked arms with others on the front line when a 40mm plastic round cracked against his head.

“I felt my face, and it was wet and soft where there should have been bone,” Soren recalls. Beyond losing his eye, he was also robbed of his sense of smell and some feeling on the left side of his face.

Soren Stevenson lost his left eye while protesting police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Soren and I met up in a park near his house in Minneapolis. It was dusk on a cool August night. JusticePirate, his handle on social media now that he wears a leather eye patch, was 25 years old and had recently earned a master’s in public policy from the University of Minnesota. However, his injury and the COVID-19 pandemic had stunted his plans for the future. Soren had just started a job search when he was shot. Between surgeries and recovery, he wasn’t able to find employment until almost a year later, in April 2021.

Soren emphasizes that his injury is small compared to the everyday violence black and brown communities face without respite, and he still hopes that the protests will lead to systemic change.

“This is a moment Americans can’t miss,” Soren says. “We can’t miss this moment to demand both elected and unelected officials do something about racial inequity and police violence.”

“They shot me because I’m Black.”

Nikita Tarver, 33, was getting ready for another surgery when I picked her up in my too-cramped-for-the-COVID-era economy rental car. Since being shot on May 30, she’d moved into her mother’s humble apartment in a gentrified Seattle neighborhood.

“The saddest part of it all was what my friend said afterward,” Nikita recalls. “She said that just before I was shot, she looked back and saw me, the only Black face in a sea of white protesters. They shot me cause I’m Black. That’s messed up.”

Nikita Tarver lost her left eye after being shot during a protest in Seattle.

Nikita had responded to a message I’d sent to her through GoFundMe, where a friend had created a campaign to help pay for Nikita’s growing pile of medical bills. She told me she wanted someone to talk to. Someone who could understand what she was going through. So did I. For months, we sent each other quick text messages, updates on our trauma animated by eye-patched Memoji.

“… it’s going to be awesome to have somebody going through the same experience to actually speak to. I mean I have people in my corner but they don’t truly understand my situation,” Nikita writes in one message.

I reach out late on another night to vent my frustrations: “I’m done moping around the house. but I get tired super quick!!! And then have to take a long nap. Sucks cause I’m not spending enough time with my kids … hopefully though things will slowly get better …  I’ve picked the camera back up and that’s a good thing.”

We talk about our families and plan to start journaling our recoveries, but we don’t actually talk about being shot until I fly out to Seattle to meet Nikita in person.

As we talk, a tear rolls out of Nikita’s good eye. She sighs a deep breath.

“Every day is a roller coaster. I think I’m at about 100 days and I’ve cried every day.” Nikita is transparent in her fragility. “I’m fighting for my fucking eye, never in a million years did I think I was going to be facing this.”

The shot caused a severe scarring of her cornea and left her retina partially detached. Doctors couldn’t give her a timetable or a definite prognosis for the future.

Since our interview, Nikita has recovered some vision, but it is still so distorted that she’s resigned herself to wearing an eye patch.

“Blinding by police” is not a trend that is unique to the United States. Wherever less lethal weapons are used with frequency, some targets inevitably lose their eyes. During the protests that rocked Kashmir, the disputed region between India and Pakistan, in 2016, it is estimated that thousands of eyes were lost to bird shot fired by Indian security forces. In Beirut, at least two eyes were lost in one night during protests following the Lebanese government’s criminal mismanagement of the August 2020 port explosion. In France, the 24 people partially blinded during the Yellow Vest uprising in 2018 became popularly known as the mutilé, or mutilated.

And in Chile, more than 400 people have been blinded or partially blinded since protests against neoliberal economic policies and for a new constitution began in 2019. More than anywhere else, they have become famed embodiments of the broader political struggle — living martyrs of the estallido, or uprising.

“How could someone rob something so beautiful, so marvelous to humans as sight?” a weeping Albano Toro asked the camera in one of dozens of video testimonials collected from members of the Coordinadora de Victimas por Trauma Oculares, a political organizing platform created by Chileans who’ve lost their eyes to less lethal weapons. Built on a praxis of mutual aid and solidarity, the Coordinadora help members receive medical attention, raise funds for those left destitute due to their injuries, coordinate political demonstrations against police brutality, and advocate for transformative change in Chilean society. It’s the kind of advocacy group that, unfortunately, many communities around the world are likely going to need more of in the years to come.

In the ambulance ride to the MedStar Washington Hospital Center, an EMT wrapped my head with a bandage. He asked me some basic questions, presumably to rule out a severe concussion. The bright lights and reflective metal surfaces made me squint. I was in shock; fight or flight had kicked in. There was still relatively little pain, but my senses were alert and I was acutely aware of my surroundings. Accompanying me on the ride were two Metropolitan police officers, also injured in the protests. I glared in their direction. In my mind I ridiculed them for the minor bruises they appeared to have suffered. I didn’t want to show any weakness, even if it was objectively clear that I was in a far more precarious state than they were.

I was shot at this location on 16th Street in Washington, D.C., on May 30, 2020.

On Sunday, May 31, I was released from the emergency room with an appointment to see a specialist later that afternoon. Twenty-four hours later, I was in an operating gown getting ready to go under the knife. Retina specialists cleaned out the hemorrhaging in the back of my eye, reattached my retina and inflated a gas bubble against the back of it. Finally, a scleral buckle was inserted around my eye. This silicone band held the retina in place by applying pressure on the globe from the outside. It was a permanent addition to my anatomy.

The shot impacted my brow and forehead, sending a shockwave through my eye. My sight will never be the same.

Until the gas bubble was absorbed by my body and the swelling receded, my doctors were reluctant to give me a definite prognosis about how much sight I’d recover. I was sent home and instructed to lie on my left side for the next seven days. Brisk movements could reinjure the eye, and gravity would help maintain pressure on the back of the retina, improving my chances of some recovery of sight.

Matthew Leo Cima was also bedridden, albeit under stricter guidelines. While I lay on my couch in that first week after my operation, I found out about Matthew’s injury on Facebook and immediately sent him a direct message.

For the first week, Matthew had to lie facedown for two hours at a time, only interrupted by 10-minute breaks when he could sit or stand. He tells me that his brow is bruising from the hole on the massage table where he puts his face. He explains that he hasn’t been sleeping well for fear of rolling over in the night.

“I don’t know if you have had a similar reaction but I haven’t even cried yet because I’m so scared for what the pressure in my eye may do from it,” Matthew writes in one of his first messages.

Matthew was also shot in D.C., while protesting in Lafayette Square on May 31.

“I just remember feeling it from this direction, and then hearing the crack of my skull from the ball hitting it,” he remembers. “And then feeling ice cold, smelling blood, and then a bright light that kinda looked like the negative of a Rorschach puzzle.”

A trained cicerone (similar to a wine sommelier, a cicerone is an expert on beer), Matthew brought the same attention to detail used in his day job to his understanding of the medical care he was receiving.

“Submacular hemorrhages and a retinal tear in the macula,” he writes, “Also hyphema but that is clearing on its own. I had surgery on Friday (days after my injuries), it was a pars plana vitrectomy with a gas bubble. My doctor wants to wait for the gas to disappear before talking results and expectations.”

Matthew Leo Cima was shot in the left eye with a “less lethal” round while protesting at Lafayette Park outside the White House.

He knows far more about his injury than I do about mine. The more we chat, the more our conversations reveal difficult truths about the differences between our injuries. Whereas my detachment is on the periphery, Matthew’s is in the center of his retina. While I am getting better, he is facing more surgeries.

“I’m not excited to start over with surgery, recovery,” he tells me, “and the finality it represents is also very daunting. But I just keep reminding myself it will all pass soon enough.”

Matthew’s fortitude gave me hope in those first months. As soon as the doctors gave me the green light, I was on my feet again. Recovery was tiring though. There were many afternoons spent napping. The gas bubble inverted the light entering my optic nerve. For a short period of time I was seeing things upside down, an exhausting exercise for my brain, which was tasked with collating and interpreting information from both my good and bad eye.

I reach out to my partner through the fog of my new sight.

Matthew tries to encourage me: “My peripheral vision one day was still nonexistent and by the end of that day I could count my fingers. It was a wild day. It will come back dude.”

Once the gas bubble receded, I was left with what I can only describe as drunk eyes. Like a multi-exposure photo, there were two sights superimposed upon each other: one lucid and clear, the other out of focus and hazy.

Rian Dundon, a close friend and one of my favorite photographers, calls me shortly after hearing I’ve been shot. “You’re living a photographer’s worst nightmare,” he says. I smile. I understand what he means. But I find solace in being alive.

“I definitely think of myself as being pretty lucky — even in these circumstances,” I write to Matthew. “So I hold on to the ‘it could be worse’ and focus on the future and recovery … ”

“I don’t want to scare you, but … ”

I’m sitting on the front porch of a brick house in Kansas City, Missouri, when I’m asked a question that stops me dead in my tracks.

“I don’t want to scare you, but have you ever heard of sympathetic ophtha-something?” enquires Sean Stearns, a professional dog walker and sketch comedian.

Sean is referring to sympathetic ophthalmia, a rare syndrome in which the body’s immune system attacks the good eye of a person who’s been partially blinded due to ocular trauma. My palms clam up. Sean can read my body’s reaction.

“It is super, super rare and usually happens in the first couple of weeks after injury,” he adds. I gulp down my beer and take another bite of the pizza Sean and his girlfriend have bought for us.

Sean, 33, was debating with his doctors and girlfriend whether they should sacrifice his damaged eye to save his good one. On the same day as my injury, Sean had been shot in the face with a less lethal round during a protest. His left eye was now completely blind, and his ophthalmologists seemed to think that removing it could reduce the chances of sympathetic ophthalmia. But it would mean he’d have to wear a prosthetic for the rest of his life, not to mention the additional surgery to perform the enucleation.

Sean Stearns was shot in the eye during a protest in Kansas City, Missouri, May 2020.

Losing sight in my good eye was the real nightmare that kept me up at night. An itchy piece of dust and a mundane cornea scratch could easily send me into a full-blown panic attack. So when Linda Tirado calls me to say she’s caught a virus in her good eye and is already losing sight, I almost drop the phone.

Linda, 38, a writer, independent journalist, mother of two and partner of a Marine vet, already had a lot on her plate when she set off for Minneapolis in May 2020. With little sleep and no guaranteed paycheck, Linda ran toward the tear gas. She was lining up a shot when a foam-nosed round burst through her protective goggles and tore her left cornea nearly in two.

“The ironic thing is it was the first story I was doing exclusively as a photojournalist,” she chuckles sarcastically, leaning back in her chair at a desk cluttered with notes and cigarette boxes. “Sorry for the chaos, virtual learning starts tomorrow.” Linda’s two daughters are in the other room reading and playing video games.

Linda Tirado’s left cornea was ruptured by a “less lethal” round shot by police in Minneapolis.

“We don’t talk about how often police escalate situations during protests,” says Linda, who has done many interviews about her experience and been outspoken in her condemnation of police brutality. Her critique of the police has made her a target of Blue Lives Matter activists.

Linda asked me to keep her location a secret because her public stature had attracted the worst kind of trolling. She told me death and rape threats quickly became a common occurrence in the comments of her social media feeds. But random angry white men showing up at her doorstep was literally hitting too close to home.

Linda wasn’t the only one fending off trolls. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, Balin Brake was accused by conspiracy theorists of being a trauma actor, faking his injury.

It was easy to spot Balin in Freimann Park, where we’d agreed to meet. He immediately caught the eye with his iris-and-pupil-less prosthetic. Balin, a recently unemployed video producer who had lost an eye when he was hit by a tear gas canister during a protest, wasn’t ashamed of his injury. He has a painted prosthetic that matches his other eye, but he says, “I know my eyes and it’s not my eye. I’d rather just … ”

I finish his sentence: “ … let people see you as you are.”

He nods his head: “Yeah.”

Balin Brake was shot in the right eye while protesting in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Fort Wayne is a small city, and news of Balin’s injury spread fast. On more than one occasion, his blank white prosthetic gave him away. For some he was a hero; to others he was a disgrace to his Caucasian heritage. White supremacists trolled his social media accounts.

“We have an obligation to tell the world what happens when these devices are used.”

By the end of August, some city governments, like those in Philadelphia, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, had responded to public outcry and enacted limited restrictions on the use of less lethal weapons for crowd control. However, most law enforcement agencies continued to deploy these devices, and some were even expanding their arsenals.

Dr. Williams is adamant that the AAO is committed to condemning the irresponsible use of less lethal weapons. “As the officials who deal with the ramifications of the use of these devices, we feel we have an obligation to tell the world what happens when these devices are used,” he says. “So, we will continue to do that. I can’t see that we would stop.”

It’s a step in the right direction, but those of us who have been shot want more.

Vincent Doyle, an amateur photographer, wants our suffering to mean something: “I was thinking, if there’s so many people, I asked my lawyer, ‘Do you think there’s gonna be a class action lawsuit?’ … ’cause this is nationwide! … Or I mean just as a group come together and — I dunno — do something … even if it’s creative or legislative.”

Vincent’s transformation from witness to victim to self-advocate was immediate. It forced him to personally engage with the violence of the institutional racism he’d faced his whole life.

After he was shot in Dallas, Vincent moved home to Atlanta for his recovery. I was taken aback when he greeted me in a parking lot. The beanbag had collapsed his left cheek. The symmetry of his face didn’t resemble his handsomely boyish self-portraits I’d seen on Instagram. My internal recoil caused a small part of me to die of shame.

Vincent went to the protests with the intention of taking some pictures. But when he saw the red dot of the laser sight dance across his body, he realized that the police didn’t always make distinctions between participants and witnesses.

Vincent Doyle, an amateur photographer, was shot in the eye while documenting a protest in Dallas.

“Either I run or I hide under the car or I just stay here and hope they don’t do anything,” he recalls thinking. “I remembered whenever my dad had an encounter with the police, he’d take out his phone. So that’s what I did. I didn’t even know I was recording.” The 22-year-old recorded the shot that would forever change his life.

While in the hospital, Vincent was visited on three separate occasions by police officers over the course of four days. Vincent says that some of these interrogations took place while he was on painkillers administered via an intravenous drip. No lawyer was ever present. To add insult to injury, Vincent tells me that the hospital rescinded its initial offer of pro bono care when the video he’d recorded went viral online. In the video, Vincent can be heard cursing at the police as they shoot at him; he assumes the hospital didn’t want to be associated with his foul mouth.

“Then what?”

Back in Richmond, Virginia, where I live, protests continued through August. Some of the Confederate statues decorating the former rebel capital came down. But for local activists like Frank Hunt, it wasn’t enough. “After the statues come down, then what? New laws are passed, then what? New politicians elected, then what?” The 30-year-old artist was angry. He was a “frontliner.” He told me he’d been on the street every day since the protests started, right up until a Richmond police officer shot him with a foam-nosed round.

Frank Hunt holds a foam-nosed round similar to the one that took the sight in his left eye in Richmond, Virginia.

When we met in Marcus David Peters Square, the center of the Richmond protests, Frank still hadn’t received medical attention. It had been nearly three months since he’d been shot. When I asked him why, he avoided the question. Maybe he feared the kind of unwanted hospital visits from police that Vincent had received. Maybe he didn’t have health insurance. Maybe he didn’t want to face the reality of his eye injury.

But Frank didn’t shy away from the struggle. He explained to me that he’d had run-ins with the law and served his time in prison.

I asked him to pose on the Robert E. Lee statue layered in colorful anti-racist graffiti. He looked directly into the camera, an eye patch covering his left eye, and held back his dreadlocks. “My skin color is not a crime” declared his T-shirt to the world.

Frank Hunt sits on the steps of the Lee Monument in Richmond, Virginia. He was shot with a foam-nosed round fired by a Richmond police officer during a protest.

I ask him if he would have done things differently if he could.

“Hell no,” he replies. “I don’t regret being there! Finding selfless service is difficult.”

“Sometimes it all piles on.”

Months have passed since I did the interviews and portraits for this article. While we all shared the trauma of being shot in the face and losing sight, our experiences of that trauma were defined by the same inequities that tinge the rest of American life. Our physical injuries varied in severity, but so did our access to quality medical care, trustworthy legal counsel, and supportive social networks.

This is how I see now after being shot in the eye; a constant multi-exposure collage.

Personally, I tried a therapist for the first time in my life. We had two Zoom sessions and then I ghosted him. Our conversations felt forced and distant. I needed instant feedback.

Instead, meeting and interviewing other people who’d been “blinded by police” became a form of self-therapy. As John Sanders had told me in Akron: “Sometimes it all piles on, all on one day, all at one time. It can be a lot to deal with.” Taking pictures and telling stories helped me process, it helped keep the piling up of emotions manageable.

In October 2020, I created a chat group on a secure messaging platform for what we called the “Shot-In-The-Eye-Squad.” Inspired by the organizing of the Coordinadora in Chile, I wanted to connect all of the people I’d interviewed. I hoped sharing their stories with each other could be as therapeutic for them as it had been for me.

One of the others in our network of people blinded by “less lethal” weapons writes me a text message about her most recent doctor’s appointment.

In no time the group grew to 12 participants and became a space to celebrate individual triumphs like a successful surgery, or to soften the momentary defeats of bad news from a doctor. We compared diagnoses and indulged in off-color eye humor. There were moments of mourning, but we were building solidarity, and that solidarity has helped to offset some of the inequities of our circumstances.

In the months that followed, the group continued to grow organically. Instead of me adding new members to the chat, other members found more people who had been shot in the eye and encouraged them to join the group. For the first time in my professional life, I felt like my work was having a tangible impact on the world.

Usually photojournalists spend infinite amounts of time researching and developing story pitches. On a rare occasion though, the story of your career quite literally smacks you in the face.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center

Listen to this story:

Queen of the S.R.O.

In gritty 1980s New York, one West Village flophouse became a last-chance refuge for addicts, criminals, LGBTQ runaways, and anyone with nowhere left to go. And my mom was their queen.

Queen of the S.R.O.

October, 8 1982. Mom wrote in her diary that she slept until noon that day and woke up feeling refreshed, filled with a renewed sense of hope. She had an appointment with her psychologist that afternoon, so she grabbed her toilet kit and headed for the common bathroom in the hotel where she’d taken up residency after life on the streets.

When she walked in and she saw a big, bald, completely nude man standing in front of a mirror. His muscles, covered in prison tattoos, rippled as he brushed his teeth, while his penis swung back and forth to match the rhythm. Unfazed by Peggy’s sudden appearance behind him, the 6-foot-2-inch man simply continued his brushing. Frozen in her stance, Mom, who looked like a young Mary Tyler Moore, couldn’t take her eyes off him. When he lowered his brushing arm, she could see the words “BAD BOY” written across his chest. At least, that was how the homemade tattoo read in the mirror. He must have etched it into his skin while using a mirror as a guide, because when he turned around, straight on it read, “YOB DAB.” With a mouthful of toothpaste, he barked, “Fuck you lookin’ at?”

“Nothing,” said Mom, sounding like a mouse.

“So I’m nothin’, huh bitch? Get yo’ ass out dis mothafuckin’ toilet till I’m finished.”

He didn’t have to tell Mom twice.

My mother, Margaret “Peggy” Hannity, age 16, 1962

Back in her room, she realized she was going to have to see Dr. Leibowitz without showering. Afraid to go back into the bathroom, she snuck into the fire emergency stairwell and urinated on the floor. She was midstream when she realized a man in a business suit was only a few feet from her, receiving a silent hand job from one of the hotel’s cross-dressing residents. She finished peeing and left without them noticing her.

That night, after her doctor’s appointment and a shift at work, Mom was sitting on the stoop at the front of the hotel, smoking a cigarette, when “Bad Boy,” the man from the bathroom, came out the front door. Mom was still afraid of him, but she tried not to show it when he asked for a cigarette. She shook a Lucky out of the pack and held it out for him. He thanked her and lit a match with his thumbnail.

“Was you the one came in seeing me brushin’ this mornin’?” he asked.

Mom nodded yes.

“Sorry ’bout that. I was, like, in a bad mood.”

He finished his cigarette and tossed it on the ground.

“I was tired this morning,” he said, as a way of further apologizing. He added that if Mom had any problems with anyone, here at the hotel or anywhere else, she should come to him and he would take care of it. His name was Carter, Mom would soon learn. He was 28 and had spent more than half his life in the juvenile or prison systems. His specialty was robbing drug dealers because they always carried lots of cash.

He was the first of many friends Mom would make at the Jane West Hotel.

CHAPTER 1: Out on Her Own

My mother, Margaret “Peggy” Hannity, was born on July 14, 1946, in Harlem, the daughter of an Irish Catholic construction worker who drank almost as much as he worked and a Scottish woman who moved to New York City as soon as she was able, eager to soak up the bright lights of the legendary big city. Jack drank away most of what he earned, so Beatrice worked full-time too, leaving Peggy to help out with her two younger siblings’ homework, as well as packing their lunches and getting them off to school.

My grandmother Beatrice and grandfather Jack.

Peggy graduated high school with an A average, then took secretarial and nursing courses at community college while waitressing in a theater district diner on weekends. I think that was the beginning of her troubles. Soon she was hanging out backstage with her actor friends after shows. This was her first introduction to social drinking, which I guess should have set off warning lights for her. But like her mother, she was attracted to the glamour.

Her partying days didn’t last long. In 1964, at the age of 19, Mom found out she was pregnant. The boy who’d knocked her up, a good-looking mechanic named Robert Hayden, “did the right thing” and married her. They spent their wedding reception at McSorley’s, an Irish alehouse in the East Village famous for its sawdust-covered floors, and found a two-bedroom in Upper Manhattan, where I was born in the summer of ’64.

Mom got a job as a secretary on Wall Street, but her drinking only got worse, and by ’68 Dad walked out. No longer able to afford the apartment, she moved us all back in with her mother. Grandpa Jack was gone too, having left one evening to buy cigarettes and never returning. With her mother and sister as built-in babysitters, Mom partied with her friends more and more, spending less and less time at home with me.

In 1970 she met Joe, a bond trader and rising star at the firm where she worked. They dated for about a year, married in a civil ceremony, and we moved to a pricey apartment in Brooklyn. Mom quit her job at the brokerage house, but instead of staying home playing house, she kept going into the city to meet friends, eat, drink and smoke weed. She often came home late at night, and the babysitting fell to Joe’s parents. He pleaded with her to see a psychologist, or find a clinic where she could try to get a handle on her drinking. Mom went ballistic, and that was the end of Joe.

My mom and I as a baby.

It was the summer of ’78. I was 14 and it was moving time again, this time far down the social ladder to a flat in the rough-and-tough Red Hook section of Brooklyn. Mom moved in with Kevin, a guy she knew from an old job. I don’t remember much about him, except that I couldn’t understand why Mom was with him. There was only one bed, so I slept on a comforter on the floor. Eventually, I packed up my few belongings and moved back in with my grandmother in Manhattan.

One night in February of 1982, while Mom was out God knows where, Kevin got together with a few of his buddies and moved all his belongings out of the apartment. Alone in the apartment with no furniture, no electricity, and no way to pay the rent, Mom didn’t know where to go or what to do. Then a sheriff and his crew came and evicted her, leaving her alone on the street with only a garbage bag of belongings. At that point, she’d had so many clashes with my grandmother that she would rather do anything than swallow her pride and call her to ask for help.

There was nowhere to go but down.

Mom found a women’s shelter, and during her first, fearful night sleeping on a cot, she held her belongings close and didn’t even take off her shoes. Even so, in the middle of the night another woman stole them right off her feet.

Me, as a toddler, with Mom.

The next morning, Mom picked up her single garbage bag of belongings and walked out of the shelter barefoot, then into the first subway entrance she came upon. For the next year she lived in the subways, watching people go to and from work, imagining their lives then curling up in the recesses of a station for a peaceful sleep. She began to explore the bowels of the system, unused tunnels that were occupied by a community of cast-aside characters. One day she walked by a teenage girl wearing Mickey Mouse ears, lying back, shooting heroin; an older man masturbating, holding a tattered Playboy magazine; a screaming woman who thought Mom was attempting to pick up her boyfriend because she had innocently stepped over the sleeping man. Mom quickly learned to keep moving in order to stay out of harm’s way. She rode the trains for hours at a time, going back and forth and nowhere, daydreaming about how to get back to a decent life. She always carried an aluminum thermos of water under her coat, tied to a rope, filling it from leaky fire hydrants and also using it as a weapon on several occasions. Most times one swing did the trick, enough to scare off unwanted company.

She spoke once with a field worker from the New York City Department of Homeless Services, who offered her a decent meal, medical services, even a roof over her head. She was tempted, but a pair of sneakers she found in the subway were still the only shoes she had, and the idea of going back to a shelter and having them stolen was something she couldn’t deal with. Thanks, she told them, but uh-uh, no thanks.

Then one frightening encounter changed everything. It happened on a rainy night in Upper Manhattan. Mom was in an exceptionally filthy subway bathroom at an elevated station, using a trickling faucet to wash out her underwear. The toilet stalls didn’t have doors, and one was occupied by a woman using her shopping cart filled with junk to give herself some privacy. All of a sudden, a man ran into the bathroom, his eyes wide and crazy. When he saw Mom, he pulled a large steak knife from his inside coat pocket.

Mom and I during Christmas, 1970.

“Your ass is my ass tonight, bitch.” He stared at her as he opened his fly with his free hand. When he was exposed, he approached Mom, who pulled her coat tight around herself as a shield. At the last minute, when she could see the yellows of his spotted eyes, she swung her thermos, knocking the knife out of his hand, followed by a swift kick to his groin. He grabbed her hair and pulled her down to the cold tile floor. Mom screamed at the top of her lungs as he positioned himself out on top of her.

Suddenly, he jerked up and screamed, swearing in Spanish. Mom could see blood everywhere as he rolled off of her, She had no idea what, or whom, had saved her, until she saw the woman from the other stall standing over him, her pants still around her ankles, a long Japanese sword in one hand, tinted the color of dark blood. (To be honest, I was initially somewhat skeptical about this part of her story myself. But years later, as a cop, I ran into a homeless woman in the Staten Island Ferry terminal who also had a sword in a shopping cart. This encounter convinced me that Mom was on the level with her own sword story. Needless to say, I tossed the weapon in the river.)

Not knowing or caring if the guy was dead, Mom grabbed her wet underwear and rushed out of the restroom. She knew it was time to reconsider letting the city help her find safe housing. As soon as she spotted the omnipresent outreach van, she went up to the window and asked if there was anywhere she could stay. The social worker had one voucher left, for an S.R.O. (single room occupancy) — the Jane West Hotel, located in the wild west fringe of the West Village. Mom knew that this was a last-stop flophouse. S.R.O.s are buildings where small rooms, typically with no private kitchens or bathrooms, are rented out; in 1980s New York there were many such S.R.O.s, usually for low-income and formerly homeless people, and often in derelict conditions. But it was a roof over her head, one that was free, private and relatively safe. She thanked the fellow as she entered the van for the quick ride to the Village, about to pass through the gates of her next adventure.

CHAPTER 2: New Friends and Old Demons

The six-story, red-brick building that housed the Jane West Hotel, at the corner of Jane and West streets, seemed to be in good structural shape for its age, faded and grimy as it was, like a warrior after a battle, worn down but still standing. A majestic cupola sat atop it like a crown, and a three-foot black wrought-iron fence surrounded the building, giving the hotel a feel more like a fortress than a flophouse.

The Jane Hotel, at Jane and West Streets in Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

The social worker escorted Mom up the front steps and into the huge lobby area, which had the heft and feel of a small arena. Mom sensed this place had a colorful history. In the 1930s it was the “Seaman’s Retreat Center,” a resting place for sailors. A faded lobby plaque told her that the surviving passengers of the Titanic had stayed there in 1912. The social worker gave mom a list of phone numbers for benefits and a couple of subway tokens so she could report to the nearest social services office as soon as she was settled in.

“Good luck,” he said, then shook Mom’s hand and left.

The desk clerk, Charlie — Chicky to everyone at the Jane West Hotel — came out of the back room. A World War II Navy veteran and one-time amateur boxer, Chicky had seen better days. He didn’t say a word as he slipped her key through the opening at the bottom of the metal cage screen atop the desk (like something one would see in an old train station) and pointed to a sign on the wall:



“If you flat back or peddle ass in this place, I get a taste of the take,” Chicky commanded. “Got it, sweetie?”

Mom blushed, then nodded her head quickly. When she finally found her voice, she said, softly but firmly, “I’m not a pro or a whore, or whatever perverted thing you may think, sir. Watch your tone with me, otherwise we’ll have a problem. Got it, sweetie?”

They looked at each other for a couple of seconds, like two boxers in a ring, before Chicky smiled and said, “You’re OK, kid. I’m Chicky.” He motioned for the sleepy security guard to escort Mom up to her room. The residents knew him as Clifford, but they sometimes called him Bigfoot because of his girth. Standing at an imposing 6 feet 5 inches, he always wore suspenders and had a dime-store police badge pinned to one of the straps. He introduced himself to Mom, carried her garbage bag of belongings over to the elevator like it was a designer handbag, and instructed Richie, the uniformed elevator operator, to take them up to Room 412. (Quick note: I have used pseudonyms for Richie and some of the other people in this story, in cases where I recall the person but don’t remember their name. All of the events described in this piece are real, however; they come from Mom’s diaries and notes, stories she told to me, or my own memory; in some places, I’ve recreated specific scenes and dialogue as best I could.)

When she opened the door to her room, she saw a metal bedframe and a mattress, a small dresser, and two tilted shelves hanging precariously on the wall. The recessed window looked out into a shaftway. For a window curtain, the previous tenant had hung a sheet.

Mom in a room at the S.R.O.

Mom headed to the common bathroom and took her first hot shower in she couldn’t remember how long. The warm water invigorated her, and as she toweled off, she began to think, How the hell did I get to this place in my life? She thought about me, for the first time, really, since she’d been put out on the street. She decided to give me a call from the lobby payphone when she was dressed, to let me know she was OK.

I was still living with Beatrice, my grandmother, who handed me the receiver after a few words with her daughter. I offered to come see Mom, but she said no, she wasn’t ready. I wanted to tell her about passing the high school equivalency diploma test, about working in an auto body shop during the day, and evenings stocking shelves at a supermarket. But the whole call lasted just three minutes. Mom said she would call back in a day or two, then hung up.

I heard the click and put my head in both of my hands.

Mom managed to get a job answering phones at a nearby Chinese restaurant, and she used the small amount of extra cash she made to decorate her room. She added window curtains and, with Bigfoot’s help, hung a new shelf and placed a porcelain Statue of Liberty figurine on it. The final touch was mounting a crucifix on the inside of her door. She began calling me from the lobby payphone once a week, and she also started to hang around the S.R.O.’s threadbare lounge, which is where she met Emilio.

Emilio had short, dark hair and always wore a dark sweat suit — except when he went to the common bathroom and changed into a skintight red miniskirt and matching wig. He was in his 20s, young enough to look good as a man or woman, and he used that to his advantage at nights, when he picked up clients in the nearby Meatpacking District. He and Mom clicked. She found him interesting, creative, perhaps even artistic, like her old theater friends. Emilio invited her up to his room to show her his wardrobe. While there, he offered her a beer. It had been several months since she’d had a drink, but she couldn’t resist. After her third one, she was laughing and talking to Emilio like they were old friends. He rolled a joint and soon they were both high, giggling like two teenage girls.

From a very young age, Mom had always liked the world of fashion, and there was a time, another life ago, when she thought she might become a clothing designer. Now she started helping Emilio create his working outfits, which he modeled for her in full drag. The new friendship reinvigorated her, but it was also dangerous. One day, after assisting Emilio with his wardrobe planning, Mom stumbled back to her room and passed out drunk on the bed.

At Christmastime, Mom added Jägermeister, Bailey’s Irish Crème and Mint Schnapps to her well-stocked liquor cabinet, and was even able to convince Chicky to cough up money for an artificial Christmas tree to put in the lobby, along with a menorah in case any of the residents were Jewish. She, Emilio and two of his friends, Gordon and Gary, put up the tree decorations, which consisted of colorful socks, cut-up beer cans, condoms and rolling papers. To top it off, Mom got up on a stepladder as the guys held it steady so she could attach an elaborate star she’d made out of aluminum foil.

Gordon and Gary, a.k.a. the G&G brothers, were in their early 20s, both gay. They looked, dressed and acted alike. Clean-shaven with neatly combed hair, they could have passed for a couple of college seniors. The G&G brothers loved to sing and had dreams of becoming a professional duo. They spent a lot of their time in the hallways, belting through the entire soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever and the hot new Broadway musical Cats.

But they weren’t the top showbiz talent at the S.R.O. That title went to a young Black man by the name of RuPaul. Mom could see immediately that he had the voice, charisma and presence to be a big performer one day. RuPaul lived in the hotel’s large cupola, the fortified brick turret at the top of the building, along with two other men; one looked like Freddie Mercury and was almost always shirtless, showing off his perfect abs. They were quite the trio, often the center of social activities. There’s a video of the three of them cavorting around the hotel on YouTube.

The S.R.O’s ballroom had been converted to a theater not long before Mom arrived, and RuPaul would perform there in drag. Some notable shows even made their debut there years later, most notably Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a musical centered around a genderqueer rock singer, in 1998. (Years later, the now-famous RuPaul reminisced to the New York Post, “when I did have money, I would rent a room at the Jane West Hotel — when I was getting some go-go dancing gigs or I could perform to my own songs. It was a dump. It had that distinctive New York smell — it’s like a mixture of mold, soot and grime. The only place you can smell that now is in the subway.”)

Video of RuPaul at the Jane West Hotel.

Another resident, Wanda, was a short, heavyset 30-year-old woman with a flair for the dramatic. That Christmas, she got drunk and high and wandered the hotel wearing nothing but a Santa hat and a garland wrapped around her. She banged on every door until the occupant opened, then belted out Christmas carols.

There was always something going on at the S.R.O. One winter night Mom stopped onto the third floor, which had a reputation for being the partying floor, mostly because of its younger tenants. They would leave their doors wide open and go from room to room like they were in a college dorm, drinking beer and dreaming up merriment. As Mom peeked her head in the third-floor stairwell door this evening, she saw two lengths of fire hose running parallel to one another along the floor. At one end of the hose were a dozen beer bottles, set up like bowling pins. At the other end was Diamond, a beautiful young blonde she’d met in the lounge a few weeks earlier, who spent most nights working as a call girl. Diamond was crouching while holding a large, bowling ball–sized wad of aluminum foil, while a crowd lined the makeshift bowling lane, cheering her on. She turned around and told my mom, “I come out the bathroom and they ask me to roll this big thing of, whatever. But really, I think they just want to see my boobs flop out my bathrobe.” She turned back around and rolled a strike, then gave Mom a tipsy high five.

From our conversations, I could sense she was bonding with several of the other residents, probably because many of their plights were similar to hers. They shared food and drink and hung out all the time. I guess they leaned on each other for support. But while Mom was spreading holiday cheer around the hotel, she was still hurting on the inside. I could tell, because she called me several times, still refusing to tell me where she was because she didn’t want me to visit. But we had long talks and she went into details about the people she lived with. I knew in my heart that she was partying again. That was the reason why she didn’t want to see me.

Mom spent much of the winter hanging with her new friends at the hotel, getting drunk or high, wasting her time and her life away, getting fired from her job at the restaurant. She didn’t care; she was sick of Chinese food anyway. Instead, she became the S.R.O.’s resident mentor. She hung out in the lounge, where her favorite seat was an elaborate, faux Louis XV chair where she would perch and fawn over her subjects. She exuded relative class and charm, and dispensed interesting commentary to anyone who would listen: gay, straight, young, old, Black, white — the S.R.O. was filled with every type of person, and Mom loved talking to anyone and everyone.

Mom relaxes in a park.

The residents soon sought her advice on everything from family matters to fashion (she especially loved helping all of the cross-dressing residents with their outfits), education, business (Emilio asked her advice on whether he could write off breast implants as a business expense) and job-hunting skills (she was a fantastic typist and volunteered to help other residents type up their resumes). There was even a young woman, Terri, no more than 20, whom Mom helped learn to read and write after she saw her in the lounge one day, struggling to sound out words in the newspaper. Mom had certainly fallen far, but she had more of an education than most at the S.R.O. and she was proud to be able to offer them the skills that she had. She was good at this, helping. If only she could do the same for herself, she told herself, over and over.

Springtime sunshine brightened up my mom’s world, and she found a new job as a part-time waitress at a nearby Greek diner. The extra money meant she could get a phone in her room and would no longer have to use the one in the lobby.

As soon as word got out she was working at the diner, Emilio and Bigfoot came around, looking for freebies. She did what she could, under the watchful eye of the owner, Spiro. She quickly developed her own steady regulars, mostly businessmen who liked her so much they often made passes in the form of job offers. She always wrote down their numbers or took their cards — said she would think about it. Not really though. She was now somewhat content with the rung of the ladder she had managed to climb to. She was scared that if she tried to skip too many steps, she was likely to fall flat on her pretty face again.

CHAPTER 3: Piercing Her World

While serving a stack of pancakes to customers in one of the booths, Mom got a creepy feeling that she was being watched. Not by Spiro, who was always making sure she put all the cash into the register, but someone else.

On the way back from the booth, she saw me sitting at the end of the counter.

Mom walked over, slowly at first, afraid to believe it was true. It had been nearly two years. I was 17 now. Finally, she smiled and asked how I found her. On her break, we walked over to the Hudson River. With the slow-moving boat traffic as background to our conversation, I explained that one of the messengers at the Wall Street firm where I was working was a childhood friend of mine who remembered her. He casually told me he’d once seen her sitting on the steps of the S.R.O. smoking a cigarette while talking to “some weird chick.” I decided to visit, where I met Clifford, a.k.a. Bigfoot, who directed me to the diner.

As a tug pushing a barge floated silently by, she asked, “How is everyone doing?”

“Everyone is fine, Mom.” I hadn’t said “Mom” in such a long time. It felt kind of good, normal.

“Oh, that’s good,” she said cheerfully.

“I got my high school equivalency diploma last year.”

Mom smiled. “Congratulations.” We talked for a while, but we both felt awkward. I asked if I could see her apartment, but she wasn’t ready for that and made up an excuse about why I couldn’t.

On the train back uptown, I felt a hard sadness. I wanted to rescue her, to take her out of that shithole, but she actually seemed to like being there. My heart was both hardened and broken.

Back in her room, her own waterfall of emotions cascaded down. She was thrilled to see me and was glad I was all right, yet somehow she felt I had pierced the delicate world she had created for herself. Her survival mechanism had been exposed, and she was embarrassed I had seen her this way.

For the next several months, I would stop by the S.R.O. unannounced to check up on Mom, to tell her how concerned I was about her. She always waved me off as being paranoid and told me to toughen up, that life wasn’t always pretty or perfect. Our visits often ended in loud arguments. She denied using drugs; I knew she was lying. She had, in fact, begun experimenting with pills, and I demanded to know where she was getting them.

It took me a while to find out who the pusher was. One night in 1984, I stopped by to see her unannounced, and that’s when Bigfoot got a hold of me. Wearing that stupid dime-store police badge on his suspenders, he sidled right up with an I have to talk to you look on his face. I was surprised when he said he respected me for trying to talk some sense into my mother. He looked around to see if anyone else was watching, then told me, “The guy you want is Miguel. He lives in Room 441, and you didn’t get this from me.”

I went to Room 441 and knocked aggressively. When I told Miguel I was Peggy’s son, he became very friendly and asked me to come in, to have a beer with him, which I graciously declined. I stood in the doorway, measuring my words, calmly telling him to stop supplying my mother with drugs because they were hurting her rehabilitation. He instantly did a 180.

“Your mother gets what she wants from me because it makes her feel good,” he said. “That’s the way it is, man.” He lifted his shirt to reveal a knife tucked into his waistband. That was enough for me. I thrust a clenched fist into his jaw with such force that he stumbled backward and collapsed on the bed. After a few seconds, he got up slowly, dazed, and tried to pull his knife out. Before he could, I delivered a flurry of punches and he flopped to the floor, his face covered in blood. I leaned over and told him if he ever supplied my mother with drugs again, I would put him in the hospital for a very long time.

As I closed the door behind me, I saw Mom standing in front of her room. She cowered slightly as I walked past. I turned to her and smiled. “What are you worried about? I just saved your life, so toughen up.”

Someone had heard the commotion and called 911. Miguel didn’t talk to the cops about who beat him up, but they did notice a large amount of drugs on his night table, enough to arrest him for felony possession with intent to distribute. I heard that after being treated at the hospital, he was released into custody and eventually sent back to prison for violating the terms of his parole. I never saw him again. As far as I know, neither did Mom.

Mom was always bouncing between jobs, and like most everyone at the hotel, never sure where her next dollar was going to come from. One day, James, a fellow resident, asked her for a favor. “Would you be interested in walking some dogs for me this Friday afternoon?” he said. “I have a very important meeting I have to attend.” It quickly became clear that he had no ownership connection to the dogs. People paid him to walk their dogs twice a day. He said he would pay her to cover him for one afternoon.

“How many dogs are we now talking about?” Mom asked.

“Only six,” James said.

“OK, I’ll do it.”

Friday morning, James came to Peggy’s room with the keys, addresses and apartment numbers of each dog. “Pick them up around 4 o’clock, walk them along the piers, let them do their business, and bring them home. It should take no more than an hour.” She did just as he said, walking them as one group of six, three on each hand. The dogs were well behaved. It was a simple job and a fast payday. Until, that is, she got back to the building and ran into an unexpected problem. She could not remember which apartment was associated with which dog. She had the paper with the apartment numbers and dog’s names, but nothing describing their breeds and colors. She tried calling out each dog’s name, but it didn’t work. Because Mom never owned a dog, she didn’t think to look at their collars, where five of the six had tags with their names. In her panic, she took her best guess and returned the dogs to what she thought were the correct apartments.

The next morning, an angry James came to her room to pick up the keys, and Mom knew what he was going to say; she had put all six dogs in the wrong apartments. James said one lady nearly fainted when she got home to discover her cairn terrier had become an English sheepdog. Mom thought this was kind of funny but didn’t dare laugh.

Chapter Four: On The Edge

One Saturday morning, Mom was up early to go grocery shopping. When she returned to the hotel, Bigfoot helped carry her groceries up the stairs and to her room, then back down as he said he had something to show her. She had a funny feeling he was up to something. Emilio, too, was acting strange. And then, when she turned the corner to enter the lounge, people inside erupted with a unified belt of “Surprise!”

Mom was stunned as Emilio, Gordon, Gary and several others were standing under a colorful, crayon-scrawled banner that read “HAPPY BELATED OR EARLY BIRTHDAY, PEGGY.” She couldn’t believe they had put this together. The artistic value of the banner was like something seen in grade school, but it was the thought that counted — not the fact that no one actually knew when her birthday was.

“You’re always helping others and so we figured, what the heck?” Emilio said, smiling. Mom giggled as they brought out a small sheet cake, a couple of six-packs of Miller High Life, and one-gallon jugs of Hawaiian Punch fruit drink. Mom spent the rest of the afternoon in the lounge, drinking. She was in her favorite setting: friends and booze.

The party had a deleterious effect on Mom. She started drinking more heavily in the days after, into the night, and would wake with a hangover that ruined her mornings, and often afternoons too. Over the next several weeks, whenever I’d stop in to see her or call, Mom’s personality would change in an instant, triggered by my words, or just by someone coming into the lounge, even a light turned on or off. One minute she was calm, and the next, belligerent and vulgar. I wasn’t sure how to handle it.

An added concern was that at the time I was being investigated by the New York Police Department’s recruitment division because I was applying to be a police officer. I kept this from Mom out of fear she’d attempt to sabotage the process. She once told me she’d say or do anything to prevent me from becoming a cop. I think it was a combination of fear for my safety and disdain for authority figures. In my head, I thought I was doing it for just one reason: to help people. But now I know there was another, more subconscious motivation for my career choice — my failure to save my mother, to save her from her most dangerous enemy, herself.

Mom continued to serve as both unofficial mentor and life of the party at the S.R.O. When she was relatively sober, she continued to tutor Terri, whose reading skills were becoming markedly better. It was not unusual for Mom to spend most of the day with her — until the drinking started, anyway.

On Halloween one year, Mom watched the parade along Sixth Avenue in the Village. She hid two beers in her purse, taking swigs when the cops were not facing her. She left before the parade ended. Back on top of the S.R.O. at the rooftop “bar,” things were lively and familiar, especially with her arrival.

“The Queen of the S.R.O. is here, you mothafuckas,” she announced with a cocky tone, setting down a six-pack of Schlitz on the parapet, in front of the usual collection of misfits.

Mom kept drinking after everyone else left, sitting and staring at the twinkling skyscraper lights. It was after 2 a.m., and for some reason the depressing truth of her situation crept up on her. She began to weep loudly, not realizing her wails could be heard from residents in neighboring buildings. One of those residents called the S.R.O.’s front desk to complain about the noise. Chicky went up to see who it was, discovering Mom pacing, ranting, with a wild look in her eyes. Fearing she might harm herself, he went back down to the lobby to call 911.

Luckily, I had been at a party nearby, on Bleecker Street. I’d recently been accepted into the NYPD and was well into my probation period at the police academy. I’d mostly avoided seeing her lately as I wanted to stay far away from anything that could jeopardize my new career. I’m not sure why, intuition perhaps, but that night a voice in my head told me to stop by. When I walked past the front desk, Chicky said, matter-of-factly, “Hey kid, ya better get up to the roof. Ya mother’s up there, freakin’ the fuck out. Already called the nut job squad.”

In a panic, I ran up the six flights to the roof. She was crouched near the edge of the roof, sobbing. When she realized I was there, only a few feet away, she quickly turned to look over the edge. The parapet could not have been more than three feet high, so if she decided to jump, it would have only required simply leaning over.

I lunged, grabbing her arm, and pulled her tightly into me. We sat on the tarred surface of the roof, and I would not let go while she and I cried together.

Thirty seconds later, several police officers appeared, quickly followed by two paramedics. She paused her sobbing long enough to tell us she was all right and just needed a good cry. One of the paramedics said it was the protocol to take her to Bellevue Hospital for a psychological examination. Mom didn’t resist, and I put my arm around her as we walked down the stairway to the ground floor.

After a stay in the emergency room, Mom convinced the doctors that she wasn’t a danger to herself or others, and made her way back to the S.R.O. I don’t know why — she wrote nothing about that night in her diary — but Mom concluded the entire episode on the roof was my fault. The next time we spoke, it wasn’t much of a conversation, really, just Mom ranting and yelling, then hanging up on me.

Me resting after one of my many jobs in my late 20s

I felt it was best to just let her vent. Hopefully, this would all pass. I was soon going to be full time in the police department; I was also about to propose to my girlfriend, and soon after that, the plan was to have kids. My life was on the way up, but Mom’s kept going down.

While I was working on my family, Mom had found her own sort of family at the S.R.O. She got a new part-time job — working at the hotel’s front desk — and the next year, she had Thanksgiving catered for her inner circle of friends, 11 people. She purchased two turkeys from the diner where she once worked, pre-carved, with all the trimmings. The tab was an even $100, including paper plates and plastic utensils. Bigfoot brought a mover’s dolly and a little red wagon to help her haul the turkeys home from the diner.

The 11 friends she invited quickly became 15, and by the time they sat down for dinner, 20. Mom served turkey, plopped down mashed potatoes, and poured gravy on plates. The trimmings were set up buffet-style, and Bigfoot ate so much cranberry sauce that his tongue turned red. One resident complained that Mom had all the white meat and wasn’t sharing equally, but most everyone was grateful, especially for the pumpkin pie.

Mom was disappointed that her closest friend, Emilio, did not appear for the meal. She made up a plate for him and knocked on his door, but there was no answer. She wrapped it in aluminum foil, tucked it into a plastic bag and left it on the doorknob.

Back downstairs, one of the G&G brothers, Gary, told her that Emilio had been arrested. “He got busted last night at the meat markets.”

A group gathered around to listen in, and Gary got quite animated as he told the story. “He was robbin’ dudes at knifepoint! He’d been doin’ this a lot cuz a his crack habit, you know, and I knew they would catch him — undercover vice cop, that’s who. When Emilio pulled a blade on him, a bunch of cops swarmed all over the car they was in. He’s lucky they didn’t beat the bejesus out of him.”

Mom was very worried. She knew Emilio had two prior convictions and would be facing some seriously long prison time. She might never see him again. She went upstairs, took the bag of food off his doorknob, and threw it in the trash. She was more mad at him than sorry. She went up to her room to drink a few beers, then fell asleep with her clothes on.

Mom spent the weekend alone in her room, devastated, then decided to visit Emilio in jail on Rikers Island. After producing identification at the visitors’ reception area, she boarded a bus that took her over the bridge, where she was searched and put on another bus to the detention center. After yet another search, she was led to the visit room and seated at one of the dozens of tables. More than an hour went by before Emilio entered and sat down across from her. He was wearing a gray jumpsuit and plastic slippers.

“Not your best look,” Mom quipped.

“Yeah, I know. Good to see you, Peggy. I heard I missed a good dinner.”

“You did. I made up a plate for you and put it on your doorknob.”

“Thanks, but by the time I get back, it will be long, long gone.”

“Why did you have to do this? You could have asked me for help. That’s what friends do, you know — help.”

“Sorry. I started smokin’ crack again. It’s such a great high, Peggy, the best. But don’t worry, they only got me for one robbery and another attempted. They said five years, but I turned it down cuz I know I can get less.”

Emilio smirked, but Mom knew he was not in a position to game the system with two prior convictions. That drug had fried his brain.

On the bus back over the bridge, something had changed in Mom. She didn’t want to end up like Emilio. She had to get out of the S.R.O. She got off the bus renewed, determined to make things better in her life. But I had seen that before, many times.

Chapter Five: Intervention

Nothing changed, of course. Each night, it was the same thing. Either she passed out in the lounge, in a drinking buddy’s room, or alone, in hers.

Terri was moving out. After improving her reading skills, she took an adult-education course at a nearby community center, and not long after, earned her high school equivalency diploma. She was moving into her boyfriend’s apartment in the East Village and had been hired as a receptionist at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

She made a point of thanking Mom before leaving, telling her, “I wouldn’t have been able to get it had you not helped me read betta’ Peggy. Thank you. Come visit me, when you can.” She gave Mom a piece of paper with her new address.

“I will, I will,” said Mom, giving Terri a motherly embrace. Mom never visited her. It would have been a painful reminder that she was still stuck at the S.R.O., while someone else, someone with barely the skills to get a high school diploma, had found a way out.

The true sign of an alcoholic is right after the morning pee; it’s the first thing they think about, having a drink, and they do. The crow’s-feet under Mom’s eyes were spreading, and her hair was thinning, losing its youthful luster. When the more caring of her drinking pals realized her decline, they stopped giving her freebies, even stole her stash. The manager of the hotel, Stewart, fired her from the front desk position after she kept missing shifts or coming down from her room late, unkempt, hungover, combative.

A few days after Stewart let her go, she was sitting in the day room doing and looking at nothing, when I walked in. It was 1988, and I’d recently gotten married. Mom had been living at the Jane West for six years at that point. She had not answered her phone lately and I was concerned, more than usual, this time.

“How the fuck are you, son?”

“What day is it, Ma?”


“Why aren’t you answering your phone?”

“Why aren’t you coming by the way you used to?”

“I’m married, Ma. It kind of occupies your time.”

“That woman is more important than your mother?”

“That’s not fair, Ma.”

“This fucking hellhole you let me live in is not fair.” This pushed a button in me. With much difficulty, I held in my response and left before starting a tirade.

Exactly two days later, I was back. This time I brought two colleagues with me: a detective and a civilian employee, both under the employment umbrella of the NYPD and assigned to what’s called the Early Intervention Unit. They were counselors who specialize in alcoholism and substance abuse. I made the introductions and then went down to the car while they spent some time with her.

They told me she kept repeating that everything was fine. “Why are you here? Why, why, why?” she said. They told her she would have to check in to a rehabilitation facility. Both counselors told her they had been through the program themselves, which helped. The female counselor helped Mom pack a bag, then take a shower.

When she and the counselor walked downstairs to the lobby, Bigfoot rushed up to Mom, giving her an enveloping hug goodbye. She cried the entire way to the hospital, where she spent nine days. The detox process required her body to be completely flushed of alcohol, which can be dangerous, even fatal. Her withdrawal symptoms included anxiety, insomnia, the shakes, hallucinations and profuse sweating. It was agonizingly difficult, but she got through it.

At 11 in the morning on a beautiful Sunday in June, Mom was escorted out of the hospital by the same counselor who had accompanied her in. She felt rejuvenated during the drive along the familiar city streets. They cut through Central Park, passing a horse and carriage clomping along, joggers, office workers buying food at carts, couples picnicking, and mothers talking, laughing, pushing strollers.

Life is always going on somewhere, without you, she thought.

Mom spent 37 days at the Smithers Alcoholism Treatment Center in an old, opulent mansion on the Upper East Side. She was optimistic, focused and, in general, happier. My wife, Michelle, was two months pregnant, and it looked like maybe little Ray Jr. would have a doting, cookie-baking grandma after all.

Mom took a typing refresher course and finished top of her class, 120 words per minute. She found a job at the Time Life corporation in Midtown. Her assignment would be in a secretarial pool on the 19th floor.

For a few months, everything went smoothly. We had twins and Mom called to check in on the boys every day. She visited and we had picnics in the park. I tried to convince her to move out of the S.R.O., but she wouldn’t budge.

Then one day all hell broke loose.

Chapter 6: Getting Out

Richie, the uniformed elevator attendant, snapped, after Bigfoot, who was dead set against any of his friends using drugs, took a baggie of Richie’s heroin and flushed it down the toilet. Richie confronted Bigfoot and, not feeling satisfied with the response, stabbed him in the gut. My mom was right there and saw it all.

When he heard the police sirens on their way, Richie sliced his own throat. Some of his blood splattered on Mom, adding to the already grisly scene.

Luckily, Bigfoot survived the attack. I don’t know if Richie did. But the incident sent Mom spiraling downward even further.

She was headed home from an appointment with her therapist when she got sucked into a pub and ordered a Guinness, then another, then two glasses of Glenfiddich single malt scotch. To finish up she ordered five pours of Bailey’s Irish Crème, over the rocks. Needless to say, she was smashed and had to be carried out into a cab. The cabbie, afraid she was going to vomit and not interested in her belligerence, quickly kicked her out. She stumbled down the street and a police car pulled up. One of the officers got out and approached her.

“Fuck off, pig!” she yelled.

He grabbed her arm, handcuffed her, and guided into the back seat of the police car.

“Fuck off!” Mom yelled as she was brought into the NYPD’s 6th precinct.

The desk sergeant was not in a pleasant mood. “I’ve heard that before, lady.”

Somehow, from her purse, she produced the little mini-badge I’d given her. “My get out of jail free card.”

The desk sergeant took the badge and studied it. “Hey, I’ve heard of you before. I’ve met your son. He’s at the 120, in Staten Island.”

“You gots it, muddafuckas.”

“What is wrong with you, Mrs. Hannity?”

She answered, with a hiccup, “I’m a rehab survivor.”

Fortunately, the desk sergeant called me and I came down to the station. Nearly in tears, I said, “Ma, what have you done?”

All six officers in the room stared, cringed, sympathized with me.

“Hi, son. I think I had too much to drink. Looks like old times again.”

It was pouring rain as we got into my car.

“When I’m going to see the boys?” she asked. “They’re so cute with the little bums.”

I pulled up to the hotel and double-parked. I carefully escorted her up to her room, took her shoes off, and helped her into bed. I put a glass of water on her nightstand. She passed out in less than a minute.

With Bigfoot in the hospital, his absence really sunk in. Had he still been here, I could have asked him to check up on her. He was like a superhero when Mom’s health was at stake. I really missed the big oaf now. I sat in a chair in her room, for over an hour. She got up once to vomit in the bathroom. She didn’t even see me. After her head hit the pillow again, I left.

A week later, the same thing happened again. This time, I was not contacted. She was arrested, given a desk appearance ticket and a court date. She received a sentence, which was to report to the New York City Sanitation garage, within walking distance of the S.R.O., for community service. She was assigned to be a neighborhood street cleaner for three eight-hour shifts, totaling 24 hours.

By that Friday, Mom had completed her community service and went to the criminal courts building to hand in her proof of attendance. The woman behind the desk gave her a validation copy and another form stating that she had completed her sentence. Mom left the building with a feeling of accomplishment. On the way home, she stopped at the corner bodega near the hotel intending to buy a six-pack of Miller, but somehow managed to find the strength not to.

On New Year’s Eve, she drank so much she passed out. She woke up in the lounge, with a party hat on, and called me.

“Happy New Year, son. How’s life?”

“Life is fine, Ma. What’s up with you?” I could tell by her voice that she was in a troubled mood.

“Nothing. Just spoke with my boss at Time Life. He said they didn’t need me anymore, that my temporary assignment was done. I’m on the short list to come back soon.”

“OK, that’s good.” That was not good. She was the best typist in the pool. I sensed in her voice she had been fired.

Mom’s life spiraled even further out of control. She spent all of her time at the hotel. She made new friends, who were even more troublesome, if you can imagine that, and drank to excess every day. She called at least once a week, but neither Michelle or I answered the phone when we saw it was her. She left messages on our answering machine that were difficult to understand.

On April 5, 1992, Mom was in the day room with “friends,” drinking and laughing. Suddenly, she experienced a very strange feeling. Her face felt as though it was turning to stone. She got up and made a call on the pay phone, to me. As she was leaving a message, I picked up. Calmly, she said, “Ray, it’s time.”

“Time for what, Ma?”

“Don’t worry, because things always work out in the end. I love you,” and she hung up the phone.

The next day, I decided to visit her at the S.R.O. I walked past Stewart, who was reading a newspaper at the front desk, but before I got to the stairwell, he stopped me.

“Ray, your mother left last night.”

“What do you mean, she left?”

“Here.” Stewart held out an envelope for me to take. “She gave this to me, to give to you.”

I opened the letter and sat down in a wobbly chair to read it:

Dear Ray,

I’m sorry it had to be this way, but it’s for the best. I can’t live like this anymore, bringing you down when you are already so tall. I know I’ve worn out my welcome. I’ve decided to try and make a new life for myself, whatever that may be. I bought a decent travel suitcase, pooled all my savings, and so by the time you read this, I will be on a Greyhound bus headed west. I’ve always wanted to see America. Everyone says New York is New York, nothing like the rest of the nation, so I guess then I don’t really know the world, or the real America. I’ll bet there are interesting people out there just like us, with similar joys and struggles. I’d like to meet them. I hope, one day, to reach out to you to give you better news. Please remember that I will always love you and your wonderful family. I’ve enclosed some savings bonds for the boys. Have Stewart give you the key to my room. Anything worth taking is yours.

Love, Mom

I stared at the letter for what seemed the longest time, not knowing what to think or do. She had enclosed two U.S. savings bonds for the boys, $500 each. I asked Stewart for Mom’s room key, walked up the four flights of stairs and unlocked her door. What I saw inside left me speechless. On the bed were photos of me as a child, my chewed-up baby rattle and tattered teddy bear, all neatly wrapped in clear plastic. I couldn’t believe that after all she had been through, she kept these things from my childhood. This meant, while homeless, she was carrying these things around.

I made a quick inventory of the room and discovered a stack of spiral notebooks that had functioned as her diary for the last few years (and are the source for much of the material in this story, along with various other notes she saved, scribbled on bits of paper and napkins). I packed them all into several shopping bags.

Since I’d left the door open, I noticed three people trying to peek in from the hallway. One of them asked if I was taking the radio, but I didn’t bother to answer. I left the room unlocked so the resident scavengers could take whatever was left, which they started to do even before I got to the stairwell.

When I got to the bottom, I peeked into the lounge one last time. I could only see a bedraggled man, sleeping in a chair, with a book on his lap.

I went back into the lobby and looked up at the garish, dusty chandeliers and smiled. I sighed, chuckled, and walked out the double front door, gleeful to never again have to set foot in that godforsaken place, the Jane West Hotel.


I didn’t hear from Mom until several years later. She was living in another S.R.O., on the Upper West Side, this one designed for tenants over the age of 50. She looked much older and had gained substantial weight. I almost didn’t recognize her at first.

She told me she had traveled to Nashville, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, and a few other smaller places, like Topeka, Kansas, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, picking up cash along the way by waitressing or taking on odd jobs like handing out advertising leaflets on street corners.

Mom with her grandchildren.

It was strange seeing her again, almost like starting all over. Even though her health was poor, she seemed more upbeat, consistent in demeanor. But she had lost the spark in her step, and with the added weight, was not too mobile.

I allowed her to come by to see Michelle and the boys, who were in grade school now. Ultimately, we even let her babysit them twice a week. It worked out quite well, considering her prior behavior. She wasn’t perfect, but responsible enough.

She was fine for nearly a year, but then the demons came back. She began to talk nonsensically, rambling on about things which were mostly of concern only to her.

Me as a firefighter on September 11, 2001.

I transitioned to the Fire Department and was working out of Engine 9, in Chinatown, on September 11, 2001. Of course, we all know what happened that day. Our engine company was one of the first on the scene. I miraculously survived the collapse of the North Tower by running out of the lobby as the building came down, diving under a tow truck not far from the front door. I was OK, relatively, after crawling out from a pile of toxic rubble.

Mom was now back to her old self. The late-night calls from the police and hospital emergency rooms were getting more frequent. In May of 2002, she was admitted to St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital with a multitude of maladies. When I arrived at the hospital, I was told her kidneys and liver were failing. They promised to do whatever they could, though, inevitably, at some point, her body would simply stop.

On Mother’s Day, May 11, 2002, when my wife and I arrived at the hospital, the doctors informed me that Mom had lapsed into a coma and multiple bodily functions had shut down. She was being kept alive only by a respirator. After conferring with them, we agreed the respirator should be shut off.

Her mother, my grandmother, had also died on a Mother’s Day, May 11, after succumbing to cancer 17 years earlier. They’re buried beside one another in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, mother and daughter, hopefully, finally, at peace.

As for the S.R.O? In 2008, the Jane West Hotel was purchased by developers for a cool $27 million and transformed into a chic boutique hotel. The first-floor lounge where my mother spent so many days socializing is now a sleek restaurant where you can enjoy black truffle shavings over “peasant pasta” before settling down for a night in one of the vintage-wallpaper-lined guestrooms.

You’ll even get access to the shared unisex bathroom.

Listen to this story:

How I Wrote Myself into a Real-life Romantic Comedy – That Turned into a Survivalist Thriller

As a filmmaker, I thought I could write the screenplay for my own love life. When I got lost in a hailstorm at 12,000 feet, searching for my ex, I realized I desperately needed a new ending.

How I Wrote Myself into a Real-life Romantic Comedy – That Turned into a Survivalist Thriller

He doesn’t love me. He never loved me. And he isn’t looking for me — so I damn well better survive the night on my own. No food, no tent, no map. No one to blame but myself. Too bad burning hot shame isn’t a heat source.

Moonlight traces a craggy ridgeline up around me in a massive arc. The sparse lodgepole pines give way to barren rock, which means 12,000-foot elevation. Thin air breeds spartan creatures — mountain lions, king snakes, bighorn sheep. Not soft-fingered writers.

My body curls into the fetal position inside the soggy sleeping bag as my teeth chatter with percussive violence. No comfort for animals that don’t belong. The hard earth refuses to yield an inch to the curve of my hip.

I lay my spine flat and look up — I haven’t seen a star in nine years. Even through my panicked fog, the glory catches me. The sky glitters and winks like a showgirl. The Perseid Meteor Shower should peak tonight. Hey if I don’t make it, at least I’ll get a good show, right? But nothing falls.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” writes Joan Didion. “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

My compulsion started around the time my father surprised everyone by dying. I’d just been dumped by the first person I’d ever kissed (and asked to keep it a secret). Then I’d blown out my knee in a basketball game and torpedoed my collegiate career. I craved control over an uncontrollable world.

So I began to write. When I’m overwhelmed, I imagine I’m inside a movie of my own design. Nothing can hurt the omniscient narrator.

Of course, it’s a trap.

This is a love story. More specifically, it’s a story about how I froze the phantasmagoria into a false map and got terribly lost. Sure, emotionally lost, but also get-me-the-fuck-off-this-mountain lost. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, unless they end up killing us.

I met Mountain Man at a boarding school in Ojai, California — my first job out of college. As an expression of its “ranch values,” the school assigned each kid a horse to ride and shovel shit for. The faculty led mandatory backpacking trips twice per year, often to a camp under Mount Langley in the Sierras.

I was eager to create new memories in the wild after my last experience: a college trip in New Hampshire where we went off course. Administrators spent three days searching the White Mountains to tell me that my father had died. Others might hold a grudge against Nature for this affront, but not me.

My dad, a second-generation Finn, respected Nature’s brutal majesty. I’d seen the photographs of him in pre-suburban life — paddling on wooded lakes and tromping across snowy bluffs. Two summers earlier, I’d completed an Outward Bound leadership training course. I’d spelled out sisu in my head over and over when the trail got tough. He beamed when I told him this. Sisu means “guts” in Finnish.

At 6-foot-4, I’ve inherited my dad’s frame. I’m the tallest woman most people have ever seen. Strangers tell me so on sidewalks, at cash registers, and in public bathrooms. A hipster once asked, “Do you secretly hate yourself?” No. I was just bone-crushingly lonely. I was a 24-year-old Harvard-educated virgin with a signed copy of The Elements of Style. I’d never had a boyfriend. Given Ojai’s microscopic dating pool and my waning confidence in the allure of late bloomers, perhaps I never would.

Mountain Man arrived my second year at the school — the hirsute love child of Ryan Gosling and Bear Grylls. His eyes were the blue of alpine lakes, and although only 5-foot-11 he swaggered like an NBA champ. He took jobs when he felt like it and lived off the grid when he didn’t. Before this gig he’d led scared-straight wilderness treks in Idaho — like the one he’d been sent to as a teenager. He brewed his own kombucha, caught trout with his bare hands, and had once lived in the Sierras for 40 days and nights alone. How Biblical.

I saw him for the first time at an outdoor school assembly. I’d spent the morning asking 12-year-olds, “What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?” and proffering gingersnaps to their anxious mothers. I stepped out of the air-conditioned Admission Office wearing a Laura Ashley knockoff from The Tall Girl Shop. Mountain Man strode in from the Horse Department — sweat-stained in jeans and leather. Blades of grass leaned toward him, hoping for the crush of his boot.

I’d heard about him. News travels fast at small schools in small towns. He’d taken his freshman boy advisees out for pizza that week and a minx had dropped her number on his plate — solidifying his godlike status among the prepubescents faster than you can say arrabbiata.

Mountain Man introduced himself to the student body and began a tutorial on how to light a fire by rubbing sticks together and blowing on them —

[A film producer interrupts from behind her posh desk.]

Without a match? You’re shitting me!

This is exactly how it happened.

Love it! Add a kitten rescue in the rewrite.
(picks up phone)
Gina, is Chris Hemsworth available? …
How about Liam? …

I looked across the faces in the crowd — there was a blaze all right. Even the aged school nurse and her hound had heart-eye emojis. My married colleague, heavily pregnant with her second child, leaned over and whispered, “Damn.”

This guy is such a cliché, I thought. Hard eye roll — chased by self-loathing.

I, too, was charmed by Handsome McMuscleface, which made me a worse cliché — Girl Who Didn’t Stand a Chance. I hadn’t successfully dated anyone, let alone Field & Stream’s cover boy. Plus the height difference? My desire was humiliating.

Yet still! My storytelling brain sensed an opportunity of Hughesian proportions. Sexiest guy in school falls for intriguing, overlooked assistant admission officer.

The secret to elevating my dating game lay in the heart of my favorite teen rom-coms: Don’t be yourself. I pictured him with a SoCal Lara Croft — half assassin, half sun-bunny. You know, a cool girl.

Adorkable overachiever was my brand. Cool was not. My mother once punished me in high school by forbidding me to study on a Friday night.

Another time, I accidentally outed my 14-year-old sister, Sarah, for taking the family car on a joyride. I was 16 and hadn’t bothered with the car yet — the library was within walking distance. When Sarah wasn’t in bed after midnight, I’d assumed she’d been kidnapped.

“I’m so sorry,” I told her when she was grounded into oblivion. “I never considered the possibility of something fun.”

“It’s OK,” Sarah’s braces gleamed beneath headgear. “I know.”

Nonetheless, I had minor superpowers. I understood narrative. I knew how to play a part. See: Lady Macbeth, third runner-up, Central New York’s Teen Shakespeare Monologue Competition.

How hard could it be to write myself into this story?

Cool Girl made no effort to meet Mountain Man for weeks. I watched from afar in the cafeteria. He’d clomp over to the soft serve station in his big boots after lunch.

[Re-creation of the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.]

Mountain Man (Juliet) swirls up a vanilla ice cream cone and takes a sensuous bite as Cool Girl (Romeo) watches below, unseen.

(Elizabethan accent)
O, that I were sprinkles upon that
cream, That I might touch that lip!

I forced my eyes away as he passed. Let him come to me. Cool Girl 101.

The Spanish teacher at my lunch table said, “I’m a happily married woman — but for a chance with him … ?” She whistled through her teeth. “You should go for it.”

This is me going for it.

“He’s not really my type,” I said, channeling my best James Dean lean.

“That man is everyone’s type,” she hissed. I smiled and shrugged.

Basketball season rolled around in November. As head coach, I mentioned I could use an extra practice player. He offered with a grin. I put on my best game face, but my players, teenage girls fluent in body language, tittered on the sidelines.

As Mountain Man and I drove the team in two passenger vans to an away game one sunny afternoon, my van started to giggle. I turned to look at his, the next lane over on the highway. One of the darlings pressed a handmade sign to the window: Ms. Johnson, he’s too short for you!

Both vans shrieked with laughter. He couldn’t see the sign. I prayed they didn’t tell him what was so funny.

Kill me now. Just end it.
I smiled at my girls and shrugged again.

I was assigned to chaperone a holiday school dance. I’d seen Mountain Man’s name on the list too. However, it was midnight and all of the students had left, with no sign of him. He was probably out birthing a foal or eating a volcano. The school webmaster-cum-DJ cranked up ’90s jams and we chaperones took over. Nothing like earnest high school teachers getting stanky to “Big Pimpin’.”

I danced, sweated and didn’t care how I looked. A tap on my shoulder — I turned. It was him. His cerulean eyes locked with mine. “Trust me,” he said, and put his forearm against the small of my back. Cool Girl was ready to rob a bank.


I leapt up and back as he flipped all 76 inches of me, 360 degrees, head over heels. Adrenaline surged through my veins as I stuck the landing. Cheering friends circled around. He flipped me again. I was giddy, dizzy, unable to comprehend the physics of such a move — but when the ground looks like the sky it’s no time for thinking.

The lights came up and the music stopped. I gave him an awkward high-five and bolted for home, like a Cinderella who knew tonight’s ration of magic was up.

I laid awake in bed. After the school year, I’d be moving to New York City to accept a fellowship in public affairs. Time was running out.

The following week, my basketball team, perennial underdogs, won a big game on a heart-stopping buzzer beater. Mountain Man and I celebrated by playing pool in the back room of a local dive bar. It was the first time we’d been alone together. I matched him point for point until his final turn. I swigged my beer like Angelina Jolie — if Angelina Jolie drank Miller High Life.

I perched against the table, blocking his approach and said, “Take your best shot.” He stepped between my legs, took my face in his hands and kissed me hard.

All the fireworks fired. Holy shit I’m a natural!

Some minutes later we were still atop the pool table when a guy opened the door.

“Are you guys still playing or … can I have a round?”

The darkness enveloped my flush. “Sorry man, all yours,” Mountain Man said with a wink. “She’ll do anything to win.”

We drove to my little house where he strummed his guitar and sang a song by U2. His eyes were closed and his voice was deep.

In a little while
This hurt will hurt no more
I’ll be home, love …

I held myself, fingers digging into flesh — tight, lest I burst into flames.

The sex was great, but what really blew my mind was the story. To be desired by the Most Desirable, I must be fucking exceptional.

As our romance progressed, he confided that he was drawn to a solitary life in nature. “I’m bad at relationships,” he said. Again, with those eyes.

I’ve never been in one.
“Me too,” I answered.

He liked independent women with their own passions — but so often they changed, lost themselves. Like one college girlfriend who started showing up to watch his lacrosse practices.

Pathetic, I thought. I wouldn’t do that in a billion years.

I doubled down on Cool Girl. I served up the fun, wild parts of myself and kept the wobbly bits hidden. A nasty blister stained the inside of my boot blood red on one of our treks, but I didn’t let on. I drank whiskey without flinching, hustled darts with my opposite hand, and wore low-cut tops with black bras when we played pool. Oh, if the Teen Shakespearians could see me now!

I listened for cues to up my game. “Don’t ask for what you kind of want,” he said after hearing me on the phone with a customer service representative. “Ask for exactly what you want.”

I didn’t just love him; I wanted to be him.

He suggested we try dating long-distance. I was elated. Coup of the century!

My sister Sarah, now a design student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, moved in with me in the Big Apple. We caught five mice in our decrepit apartment in the first week. Yet as long as Sarah was there, I was home. I wrote her résumés. She framed fashion feedback in a way I could understand: “Your outfit,” she’d say with the forbearance of a monk, “is not telling a consistent story.” She threw herself into the maelstrom of New York dating as I happily abstained.

Mountain Man sent me handwritten missives and pencil sketches of my face. He highlighted words in a pocket Spanish dictionary — amante, beso, toque. In between pages, he pressed columbine and Indian paintbrush. He included a little satchel of rocks — limestone, hornfels, mica — tiny treasures from his rambles in the high places. His letter read, “My longing, in a pocket for you.” New York City was kicking my ass, but my belief in our epic love story buoyed me.

He even came to visit me in Babylon, as he called it, for New Year’s. It was the first time I saw him away from his other woman, the wild. He strained to put on a good face despite obvious irritation with the concrete canyons, $14 gin and tonics, and affected hipsters. I joked about the local wildlife (pigeons, rats in the subway, my asshole mice roommates), but it was plain that he was lost without his true love. I could never compete.

“So great to see you killing it out here,” he said.

This city is crushing my soul.
“You know me,” I said.

Cool Girl was wearing me out. I’d pulled off the heist but now had to live with the con.

When it was time for Mountain Man to fly back home, I watched him in the ticket agent line, certain he wouldn’t be let on the plane. He’d lost his license. This was post 9/11 LaGuardia — no chance. Sure, he knew how to survive in the wilderness with nothing but a pen and ball of twine, but I knew how this city worked. He waited, beaming at the agent, wafting manbrosia from 20 feet away.

“Driver’s license?” She called him forward. I shook my head. I’d tried to warn him.

“I don’t have a driver’s license,” he replied, “but I do have a diver’s license.”

He slapped a scuba certification ID onto the desk. In it his hair stuck out in all directions, his expression adorable. She laughed and waved him through. What?! Manic Pixie Dream Boy strikes again. He gave me a winning smile and headed toward the gate, back to his mistress.

I took a taxi home, depleted and confused. Was he even a real person?

Life got harder in New York. My mother, living alone in Syracuse, was hospitalized with a perforated bowel. I had just worked up my courage on a phone call to tell him how scared I was to lose her, when his surf buddy knocked on his door.

Please don’t go. Choose me.
“Of course,” I said. “Have fun!”

I craved his support but wouldn’t break out of my role. Needs? Cool Girl didn’t have needs. Gross.

He called once a week from a landline. He didn’t believe in cell phones. I held my cell all February 14th, certain he’d call any minute. He didn’t. Later he remarked, “Hallmark holidays are such bullshit, right?”

But you’re my first Valentine.
“Total bullshit,” Cool Girl agreed.

Sarah saw through my story. “You’re not happy with him,” she said. “Stop being an idiot.”

[Sarah addresses camera.]

More like, “Stop being a fucking

I couldn’t explain how being his girlfriend made me exceptional. It sounded pathetic. There but for the grace of God, go I to the lacrosse practice.

A year into dating, I visited him in Ojai. We returned to the dive bar where we’d had our first kiss. He loaded up “Sweet Melissa” on the jukebox but was out back having a cigarette with strangers when it came on. I felt like a hollowed-out piñata.

A woman at the bar advertised palm readings for five dollars. I didn’t hesitate.

“Let’s see what we can see,” she said.

I placed my clammy, open-faced hand into hers.

“Hmm.” Her brows knit together as she traced a ridgeline.

“Is it bad?”

“You’ve got the Jupiter Mate Selector,” she whispered, like it was a tumor.

“What’s that?”

“You know, Jupiter, Roman god of the sky. Zeus to the Greeks.”

I nodded.

“You fall for powerful men. You put them up on a pedestal and keep yourself down low.”

Oh boy.

“Is it terminal?” I joked.

Stone-faced, she folded my sweaty hand and gave it back to me.

“If you don’t believe that you’re just as powerful as the man you’re with, then you’ll be alone forever.”

Well shit.

My Cool Girl act proved that I didn’t feel like his equal. So I could either get real quick or break up with him. I chose the latter. Maybe I didn’t think he’d like my true neurotic self. Or I valued the preservation of my fairy tale over the actual relationship. Or I was just damn exhausted.

We went on one last backpacking trip in the Sierras. Distance was a perfect excuse. Nobody’s fault. “A good run.” I exited the union the way I’d entered, by suppressing my emotions and calling it strength. He told me how amazing I was, but I knew the truth. I didn’t cry until I was alone. What a fraud.

I consoled myself by expanding the story. I wasn’t another notch on his lipstick case — he was in pain too. No girl had broken up with him before! He’d start calling me The One That Got Away and flirt with me into our 80s. I’d smile and shrug — cool till the end.

He started dating someone a nanosecond later.

“I’m sure she’s great,” I told our mutual math teacher friend through a stiff smile.

Yet, his claim of wanting to stay friends seemed genuine. He set up times to talk on the phone during his brief interludes down from the Sierras that summer. Then he flaked every time. WTF? The dull ache in my chest tightened into something sharp.

Autumn came, still I waited, hating myself for it. I worked insane hours for low wages at an environmental nonprofit run by a sociopath. I hadn’t had sex in four months and all my first dates had flopped.

One afternoon I got a voicemail from him. Finally! But it was a pocket dial. (Now he gets a cell phone?!) A week later I rode the tide of commuters up from the Union Square subway station, buoyed and beaming. He’d left another message, surely a real one this time.

Nope. Another pocket dial. In it I heard Mountain Man coaching his lacrosse team. He sounded so happy and I was so miserable. The final indignity.

The dam that had held back my messy self for so long burst. I’m getting tossed out like yesterday’s trash? Hell no. NOBODY DOES COOL GIRL LIKE THIS!!

I scream-shouted my own voicemail, “Learn to use a fucking phone and delete my number!!” I hung up and put a hand over my mouth to block the sobs. The gray-black river of indistinguishable New Yorkers streamed past me on the sidewalk. I wasn’t exceptional anymore.

Nine years passed in New York. I wrote stories for money. Got rejected. Wrote more. My mom’s health worsened. Then improved. Then worsened again. I dated a police officer, a tech entrepreneur, a newspaper man. Sarah and I upgraded to a “garden-level” apartment. I had pigeons in an air shaft outside my bedroom and Sarah had a dumpster full of mice outside hers. At least the vermin were outside now.

Sometimes, especially in summer, I’d squint my eyes and see Mountain Man on the poster of Mount Langley above my bed, climbing the ridgeline. So small, only I could see him. While I never opened his box of letters and pressed flowers under my bed, I didn’t throw it away either. My longing, in a pocket for you.

I spent my life’s savings to create a film that sold to Showtime. For once I hadn’t sought anyone else’s permission. I’d leaned back, jumped into a flip, and stuck the landing on my own. I decided to move to Los Angeles, though leaving Sarah was like leaving behind a limb.

I hadn’t spoken to Mountain Man in almost a decade. Missing him and missing the mountains felt the same — a tug to abandon acceptable society and get dirty. I considered reaching out to him. I’d done hard things. I was stronger now — his equal, right? Maybe it could work?

I’ll be my 100 percent true self this time.

I believed it, too.

[Orchestral music swells. A narrator speaks.]

The lovers reunite in the wilderness.
Older. Wiser. Only now can they truly —

“Aren’t there like, other mountains in California?” Sarah interrupted my reverie, eating peanut butter out of the jar. She’d never bought into Mountain Man’s charms.

Mountain Man answered my email with a warmth that made my entire body blush. He welcomed me for a weekend at the school’s camp in the Sierras. I knew the location under Mount Langley well; I’d led student trips there. We’d rendezvous at the parking lot trailhead in three weeks. I’d join a group of alumni who were vacationing at the school’s camp. Their burro train would be easy to spot with Mountain Man at the helm.

I let Sarah keep all of our furniture, and she helped me pack my books and wardrobe into Goldmember, my secondhand Subaru. “If I catch you wearing Birks,” she warned, “I’m bringing you back.”

I drove alone from New York to Los Angeles in a daze of possibility. I was about to start telling stories for a living in the City of Angels. Who knew what might spark between Mountain Man and me under the stars? I wandered through story castles in my mind as miles of Midwestern corn flew past my window.

I awoke on a bright August morning in Silver Lake. My friend Adam was letting me crash in his converted garage until I found my new home in L.A. Today was the day. Butterflies danced up my thighs but Cool Girl was back and took charge. I pulled on new Patagonia shorts I couldn’t afford, laid down in the garden and rolled around in the dirt.

“Whatcha doing?” Adam asked from the kitchen window, bleary-eyed in boxers, coffee in hand.

“Gotta rough ’em up,” I explained. “Can’t look too new.”

He cocked an eyebrow.

I debated the merits of cowboy hat versus baseball cap in the bathroom mirror for 20 minutes. Then I painstakingly applied no-makeup makeup: professional grade mascara, concealer, tinted SPF and bronzer — camouflage to the untrained male eye. Why, Cool Girl hadn’t aged a day.

I hit the road late. No matter, I could make up the time on the five-hour drive. Goldmember bombed through the scorching Mojave Desert, past Joshua trees, Death Valley, and the dried-up salt of Owen’s Lake — grim tribute to the unnatural thirst of Los Angeles — into the Inyo National Forest. I climbed the precarious switchbacks, well-known to wilderness junkies and location scouts, into the mighty Sierras, youngest mountain range in the United States. Impossibly young, like me.

View of the Sierras from the Sequoia National Park, adjacent to Inyo National Forest.

I shout-sang to the radio until it fuzzed out. My ears popped as I dodged fallen rocks with one hand and called Mountain Man with the other. There were no guardrails and the road narrowed to a blind turn, above a thousand-foot drop-off.

It went to voicemail. “It’s me,” I said, buzzing with adrenaline, “I’m a little late. No need to wait — I’ll walk myself into camp!” Cool Girl knew the way.

I arrived at the sprawling parking area, dotted with dozens of trailheads. Goldmember quickly found the right one. Mountain Man and the alumni had departed. Fresh burro tracks crowded the trail. Fair enough, I was 20 minutes late.

The midafternoon sky was hard and bright as a marble. I reapplied no-makeup mascara and started down the trail, recognizing trees and streams as I passed. Cocky about my sense of direction, I stopped to meditate on a felled trunk, freebasing sunshine and alpine air.

I’ll catch up to them in 30 minutes, tops.

Hours later, I climbed a grueling series of switchbacks as sunlight narrowed to a thin ribbon over the saddle. My mascara had fallen into racoon eyes. I distracted myself from my gnawing hunger by rehearsing my opening line to Mountain Man.

[Cool Girl, dressed in trench coat and fedora, addresses camera.]

Cool Girl
(as Humphrey Bogart)
Say, what’s a girl gotta do to
get a drink around here?

I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. No problem, I’d see Mount Langley from the top of the pass and the camp beneath it. There’d be a full spread waiting.

Landscape of the Sierras viewed from the Sequoia National Park.

S-I-S-U, S-I-S-U … I repeated the old mantra on a loop in my head.

Sweat-drenched and huffing, I made it to the saddle and looked out upon the long-shadowed wilderness. No Langley.


The trusty burro tracks were still there. I scurried down the opposite slope into the gloaming. Raindrops pinged my bare arms but there was a lake up ahead that I recognized. Just a little farther.

Night ambushed me. Total blackness. My instinct was to yell, “Not funny, guys!” as if that might bring up the house lights. I balanced my pack on a rock, hands trembling as I fumbled with an ancient headlamp mummified by duct tape. I didn’t notice that the sleeping bag at the bottom of my pack was getting soused in a puddle. Was I shaking because of the cold or my nerves? The rain intensified. Just a little farther.

Tharump-tharump-tharump! A mountain lion pounded down the ridgeline behind me, jumped with jaws wide, ready to rip into my flesh — I whipped around, hiking poles braced. Nothing. It was only the sound of my own heart, trying to beat its way out of my ears.

Nausea washed over me. I knew the hypothermia risk of sleeping out in precipitation. I was at the tree line, 12,000-foot elevation, which meant near freezing temperatures, even in August.

Is this a joke? Donner, party of one? I wandered aimlessly now. Just a little farther.

My story mind grew emboldened. A voice spoke up like my personal HAL 9000, “DON’T PANIC … DON’T PANIC … PANIC … PANIC … ”

“Stop that!” I hissed, sounding like the homeless man who used to wander around my block.

Maybe Mountain Man can hear me from here. I released a high-pitched cry into the wild dark.


Up and down the ridgeline I paced, redoubling my ragged cries.

Then I heard it — a faint, deep voice across the lake. I shouted Mountain Man’s name from the deepest place inside me.

“HEY!” the voice rang back. Relief, pure and sweet, dropped through me. I was already in that warm cabin, laughing it off—

“SHUT UP!” the voice said. Not. Mountain. Man.

I froze.

Should I shout again? What if he’s a serial mountain rapist ready to cast me in a gritty reboot of Deliverance?

Weary, I hunkered down with my wet sleeping bag and used my dirty sneaker as a pillow. Dankness soaked into my bones. My knee throbbed. I couldn’t stop shaking. I began sit-ups to generate body heat as hail pummeled my face.

If I die, I’m gonna haunt Serial Mountain Rapist’s ass for eternity.

[A movie trailer voice-over interjects.]

(deep, authoritative)
She’s a vigilante specter with nothing
to lose. He’s the dick across the lake
who couldn’t be bothered. GHOST JUSTICE,
coming to CBS this fall.

I closed my eyes for short, drowsy intervals, and opened them mechanically, as if triggered by the slow, audible click of a lever behind my ear. The view changed a little bit each time. Hazy, no stars. Then a low, drippy moon. Then faint white pinpricks everywhere.

View of the Sierras from Sequoia National Park with the moon high in the sky.

Click. I opened my eyes again to find a clear-eyed moon bearing down on me like an interrogation lamp. I threw myself upon its mercy.

I confess. I’m here because I took too long putting on my Cool Girl bullshit costume. I was trying to impress an asshole who couldn’t wait 20 fucking minutes after TEN YEARS. I understand the story now. It’s a cautionary tale. Let me survive this and I’ll drop Cool Girl forever. Please.

Click. I opened my eyes wide to take in thousands of stars, a dusting of cosmic sugar that extended beyond my periphery, brilliant and twinkling.

There was something new — bright white lines drawn around constellations, like the poster on my sister’s childhood bedroom door. HAL narrated, “ANDROMEDA, THE BEAR, CASSIOPEIA … ”

I didn’t know that I knew the names of these constellations — sweet!

HAL continued, “PEGASUS, SAGITTARIUS … ” It was a movie screen in the sky.

Wait a second.

Revelation punctured my woozy delight. What I was seeing wasn’t real. I shook myself upright and pinched my arm. Snap out of it, Johnson! But the shapes didn’t go anywhere.

I squeezed my eyes shut and laid back down.

It’s OK — just a little stress hallucination. Deep cleansing breath. I’ll open my eyes and the shapes will be gone.

I reopened one millimeter at a time.

Nope. Still there.

I locked my eyes shut. A frantic sparrow was trapped inside my head, flying room to room, bloodying itself against every window — looking for the way out.

It was a long sleepless wait before I dared to open my eyes again. The stars were gone now, and I watched the sky change from black to indigo to pink, like a bruise healing. I rose, quaking as a colt. Everything hurt. The muscles around my knee spasmed. My lungs worked for every breath in the oxygen-depleted air.

On the far side of the lake I spied campers packing for departure. I shuffle-ran toward them, legs screaming, desperate to make it before they left. They were just below me when I realized this must be Serial Mountain Rapist and friends.

Just be as polite as possible.

“Beg your pardon!” It came out in a British accent. That’s weird. My survival instincts had turned thespian. Six grave, bearded mugs turned to face me in unison. Bloody ’ell.

“I appear to be in a bit of a pickle. Might you have a map?”

They were a group of fathers and sons from San Diego and were horrified to hear that I’d spent the night exposed to the hail and rain. I inhaled three bags of their M&Ms and two Nature Valley bars. They were hiking out today and encouraged me to join them.

Their map showed that I was nine miles and 2,000 feet up in the wrong direction. I’d confused the Cottonwood Pass Trail with the Cottonwood Lakes Trail and recognized landmarks because I’d taken trips of students out on this route. I’d been wrong from the first step.

Me at Cottonwood Lakes in Inyo National Forest, with the Sierras and Mount Langley peeking out in the back. Photos courtesy author.

I toed the back of the line with the eldest father. We settled into a meditative cadence. The others got farther ahead.

“You know that camp I was headed to?”

“Yes?” the father said.

“It’s run by my ex-boyfriend. Haven’t seen him in 10 years.”

“That’s a long time.”

“Yeah.” I paused. “The good part is, bet he hasn’t noticed that I haven’t arrived yet. Or he thinks I’m coming tomorrow, or whatever.” I forced a laugh.

“Maybe,” the father said, “or maybe he’s really worried about you.”

“No,” I said, “not this guy.”

Fathers aren’t big on tears in my experience. I’d never seen my dad cry. Misty-eyed once, when his sister died. But never cry. He’d requested two things for his eulogy, which we both knew I’d be writing. First say, “Not bad for a poor Finnish boy from Quincy, Mass.,” and second, “Don’t go crying and carrying on.” He was the original Jupiter. While Sarah and my older sister, Toby, fell apart next to me at the lectern, and my mom sobbed in her pew, I held steady. My tribute. Don’t show your feelings. Be cool.

I was glad to be ahead of this father, single-file, so he couldn’t see my wet face.

The day was late back at the trailhead parking lot. I slumped in Goldmember’s hatchback, sorting through wet clothes. Hair ratty, makeup frightful, I was downwind from the public toilets and too spent to move. Portrait of The Uncool.

A school van rolled towards me.

“Melissa Johnson,” a serious voice said, “everyone is looking for you.”

Bearded, older, but those unmistakable eyes. Mountain Man.

He sounded pissed — his voice, low and even. I’d never seen him like this. Then I realized — I’d scared him. The unflappable guy, flapped.

“I got lost,” I said in a soft voice. He got out of the van. We embraced.

He had waited for me at the correct trailhead, five minutes away, until nightfall. Then he’d sent out the call. State troopers were looking for me on the highways; park rangers were searching in the mountains; student workers from the camp were scouring the trails — a full-scale search-and-rescue operation. His backpack held an emergency oxygen tank.

He’d used his satellite phone to track down our math teacher friend who had, in turn, called the headmaster on vacation in Wyoming, my friend Adam in Silver Lake, my former boss in Oakland — and Sarah.

We drove to a nearby vista so I could call Sarah. She screamed to the point of squeaking.

“You are an ASSHOLE! I thought you were DEAD!”

My tongue was thick with shame. This was the worst thing I’d ever done, to the person who loved me the most. She’d been on her way to tell Mom that there had been no sign of me for 24 hours. It was worse than the search for me in the White Mountains, because she knew I was alone.


To this day when this story comes up, Sarah leaves the room.

Mountain Man and I walked to the camp from the correct trailhead. It took 45 minutes. I looked up at Mount Langley — eternal and unchangeable to a small human.

We sipped tequila that night in his cabin.

“After we broke up, I missed you so bad. Thought we’d be friends. All this hard stuff was happening. I couldn’t understand why you just … dropped me. You were a real shit.”

My body trembled. I’d never been so forthright.

“What?” His face fell. “You told me to delete your number. You didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Why didn’t you tell me?!”

Why didn’t I tell him?

Turns out, I’m the hero of this story and also the villain. In my search for a romantic lead, I’d replaced him with a totem. Mountain Man neither possessed nor could tolerate weakness. But his real name was Gabe. He wasn’t a god out of Roman mythology. He was born in Reno with a clubfoot to parents who got divorced. He’d failed to graduate college and went back years later. He was self-conscious about his hairy back. Clean arcs resist messy details.

At a grassy alpine meadow in the Sierras, two days after reuniting with Mountain Man.

“The way you live your life apart, I realized you don’t need people,” I insisted.

“That’s not true. I absolutely need people.”

No, he didn’t need people! It was a pillar of my story. But then he opened up about his own bone-crushing loneliness after his last breakup. It had been drawn out, ugly, emotional — an altogether human affair. I felt the hurt radiating off his body. I couldn’t hide from the deeper, more painful truth —

You didn’t need me.

The words sat heavy in my mouth. I ached to say them, to drop the Cool Girl mask for good. Vulnerability is death. Yet lack of vulnerability is also death. What a rotten trap! I wanted to shout back at the voice in the wilderness that had told me to shut up. I wanted to sob at the lectern. I wanted to be messy and real and loved for it all.

But I choked. I filled my mouth with tequila instead.

“I would have gone up every trail,” he said, “followed the road all the way back to Los Angeles to find you.” My heart split in two and fell to the ground.

All my stories had been wrong.

I’d picked the wrong map, gone down the wrong trail and reassured myself with misinterpreted data points that I was going the right way. I’d been wrong from the first step.

Later that evening, I lay snug in the open meadow under bountiful stars. No white lines tonight, only Gabe’s red laser pointer naming constellations. Middle-aged alums had returned to see the stars they’d known as kids, to feel young again in the seeing.

Andromeda was about to be eaten by a sea monster. Callisto was transformed into The Bear so Zeus could hide her from his wife. Virgo, daughter of Demeter, was stolen by Hades. Ancient poets and wandering minstrels flung these stories about women upon flaming balls of hydrogen and helium — so they could feel less alone in the dark night.

We hope our stories will protect us from sailing off the edge of the earth, or the unpredictability of the harvest, or loving someone who doesn’t love us back. Our toy swords against the dragon.

The rest of the weekend was full of hikes, hammocks, and music around the campfire. I reminded Gabe of that first fire he’d made at the school assembly.

“God, that was so embarrassing,” he confessed, “when I couldn’t get it to light.”

What? I stared at him. Exactly how different had our stories been over the years?

What if neither of us was right? What if both of us were right? What if all the stories were true and untrue? What if we could experience the multitude of competing narratives at once — and enter the Spider-verse like a god, like Jupiter?

[Characters address camera in montage format.]

It was like watching two superheroes

He was a garden-variety dilettante with
an REI card. And his beard was gross.

Have you seen him play lacrosse?

I mean, I’m a happily married woman —
but for a chance with her … ?
(whistles through teeth)

I never met a mouth I liked more.

I predicted the whole thing.

I’m the one who insisted that he start
the search party.

She came back to see the mountains.
She didn’t come back to see me.

When the time came for me to return to L.A., Gabe invited me to join a river rafting trip with him and two ranger buddies deeper into the wild. They were bringing homebrew and a yeti costume.

“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.

Indeed, it was. Manbrosia flooded my senses.

“So?” he shrugged with a devilish smile. All creatures in his gravitational orbit bent toward him. I felt the pull and leaned away.

He is the guy. He’s not the guy. He’ll always be the guy. He never was the guy.

I could hold all of the stories at once, devour them in a mouthful. They swirled together in my magnificent round belly. There was no past and no future here. Nowhere else to be. I felt my life force expanding in a primordial storm. I was the descendant of supernovas.

“What’s it gonna be?” he asked.

I had thought that becoming his equal would mean that we’d be together. I was wrong.

I have a life to go build.
“I have a life to go build.”

Listen to this story:

The Extraordinary Trial of the Child Soldier Who Became a Brutal Rebel Commander

Kidnapped at 9 by Joseph Kony’s notorious guerilla army, Dominic Ongwen was groomed to kill. Is he a lost soul deserving of mercy, or a cold-blooded war criminal who must face justice?

The Extraordinary Trial of the Child Soldier Who Became a Brutal Rebel Commander