In early June, on a busy Manhattan street, I bumped into Flash Rosenberg, a woman who freelanced for the art magazine I worked at a million years ago. Flash invited me up to her loft and gave me a cup of coffee. She still makes her living as a cartoonist and photographer, and her place was as jam-packed as you would expect a cartoonist/photographer’s loft to be. It was a fun 25 minutes of catch-up, but I had an appointment nearby. As I checked my phone for the time, she raised a finger and asked, “Do you want to meet my boys?”
The boys were two turtles floating in a large tank near the bathroom. They were the size of small throw pillows, with big fat necks; they looked like balding middle-aged men with patterns on their backs. “Aren’t they pretty?” Flash asked. And they were, as long as I concentrated on their shells and not on their Don Rickles faces.
Flash told me they were diamondback terrapins, the name for turtles that live in brackish water. Apparently there are some endangered wild terrapins in New York City, out by Jamaica Bay. “But I saved mine from becoming soup thirty years ago, at an open food stall in Philadelphia’s Chinatown,” Flash told me. “The seller kept saying, ‘Longevity! Longevity!’ I think he meant if you eat turtle soup you will live a long life, because diamondbacks can live past 50.
“I was horrified,” Flash continued. “I bought one and then went back later to get some company. I really took to them, but truthfully I’ve always been a bit of turtle person.”
She pointed to one of the floating boys. “You want to hold one?”
I didn’t really, but I nodded and she pulled one out of the tank.
“Meet O.O.T., for Ole Original Turtle. You should not fear O.O.T., for he is calm, sage and wise.” As I held a turtle for the first time in many years, Flash admitted she used to walk her pets in Bryant Park, tying brightly-colored helium balloons to them so she could find them as they ambled in the grass. Passersby were enchanted, but it was a short-lived idea. “I think they’re happier at home under their reptile light bulbs. It is less stressful here than being made a spectacle of.
“The other one in there is DoubleDill, an edgier dude named by my niece when she was five. She was calling him ‘Little Turtle’ which in her young voice sounded more like ‘Little Dildo,’ which was not something I wanted to call him. So I tried shortening his name to ‘LittleDill,’ which still sounded like “Little Dildo” — so finally he became “DoubleDill” — no space between letters.
“No matter how cool you are, if you hold up your turtle you will look like an eighth grade geek,” Flash went on. “It’s like owning a plant with much more personality. Plants don’t respond. But turtles do.” (At this moment, the turtles really seemed to be looking at her.) “Now I don’t know if they like me, per se; maybe it is my composite vibration — the way I walk and talk. I used to do radio spots in Philadelphia and when they would hear my voice they would look towards the radio, swear to God. You may think I’m nuts. I should show you my card for the turtle club.”
At that, I was hooked. As a writer with a fondness for subcultures, interesting humans and anything NYC, I had to know more. Flash explained that the New York Turtle & Tortoise Society has been around for 40 years. “We have a show in Greenwich Village where turtles and tortoises compete, with blue ribbons and Best in Show. It’s a scene. You should go.”
Two weeks later I entered the gates of the Village Community School on West 10th Street and headed toward a yard, where numerous tortoises were crawling on the asphalt. One turtle was being pulled in a hot pink Barbie jeep.
I chatted with the longest continuous member of the turtle society, 74-year-old Michael Sherwin, a charming and knowledgeable man in a crumpled suit. If this were a Christopher Guest film, Eugene Levy would be playing him. Michael used to be the Julliard bookstore manager and now reviews classical music concerts and releases. One of the turtle club members whispered to me afterwards, “There is an unwritten rule that we don’t start the judging until Sherwin shows up with the turtles, in his suit. He’s in that suit no matter what the weather is.” Michael had brought four turtles this day, including Snappy, an enormous 40-something common snapping turtle, probably the oldest four-legged competitor in the show.
Dr. Patrick Baker looked more like an all-American football player than a testudinologist, the proper name for a turtle and tortoise scientist. But this baby-faced man was indeed the judge of the competition, visiting from his research post in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he is studying the Nubian flapshell, a large softshell turtle found only in north central Africa. Dr. Baker took a long time to examine each contestant. Hours later, when Baker awarded the coveted blue ribbons, Michael and Snappy were called to the makeshift podium. Snappy was too large to carry, so Michael brought a younger, smaller turtle for the official photo.
Seven blue ribbons had been handed out, which left one prize remaining: the Best in Show at the 41st Annual New York Turtle and Tortoise Show. Humans craned their necks, turtlelike, to see who was left. Gasps could be heard when Dr. Baker announced a first-time entrant the winner, a 65-pound tortoise named Harry Houdini.
One shocked competitor whispered to me that Harry’s owner, Reverend Terry Troia of Staten Island, had arrived an hour late to last year’s turtle show but left the schoolyard determined to try again. This year, victory was hers.
In August of 2011 Rev. Troia was walking down Sharpe Avenue in Staten Island when she saw a large tortoise walking towards her. At first, the 56-year-old Reformed Church in America minister and citywide homeless advocate thought the animal was a large mechanical toy. She picked it up and realized her mistake when the tortoise started flailing. Rev. Troia brought it to her mother’s backyard, from which it promptly escaped. It was found grazing on a neighbor’s lawn.
Rev. Troia discovered the tortoise had belonged to a young boy who left him at a neighbor’s house and for unknown reasons never came back for him. The neighbor said Harry kept escaping from her yard. She had eight kids to feed and couldn’t afford to feed the tortoise. Rev. Troia agreed to hold on to him for the time being, naming him Harry Houdini because of his escape artistry.
Rev. Troia’s next order of business was identifying Harry’s species at the Staten Island Zoo, so she could learn what to feed him. It turned out that Harry is a northern African spurred-thighed tortoise, also called a sulcata, and a native of the sub-Saharan desert, probably smuggled into the country to be sold as a pet or food. One on-the-ball zoologist told her the sulcata is the third largest species after the Galapagos and Aldabra giant tortoises, and somewhat alarmingly, that he could grow to 260 pounds and live for over 150 years. Troia was not worried about how she was going to take care of him yet; her paramount concern was his health because it was clear to this specialist that he was very sick and needed immediate attention at the vet.
Rev. Troia drove to an emergency appointment with Dr. Michael Doolen, an especially active member of the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians based at NorthStar VETS in Trenton, New Jersey. Lead poisoning was the diagnosis, which corresponded with the later news that Harry had eaten through the wall of the apartment where he had lived with his former child owner. The only remedy was expensive chelation therapy, and Rev. Troia learned her rescue would have a better chance if he lived with her, rather than at an overcrowded sanctuary. Harry received shots in his neck and the kind minister learned how to administer them.
While Harry was recovering on a diet of hay, dandelion and fruit, Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of Staten Island hard in October of 2012. Troia’s home was without electricity and Harry without his special reptile lighting needed for recovery. By this time word of Harry’s situation had spread to animal lovers of Staten Island, and a kind old lady in Arrochar, a neighborhood still blessed with electricity, drove over to get him until power went back on in New Brighton.
After several more months of pricey treatment, Harry was finally well. Rabbi Gerald Sussman, Troia’s boss at the interfaith homeless outreach organization Project Hospitality, offered his yard for the summers. Harry continues to live as an interfaith tortoise, wandering the rabbi’s yard through the High Holidays, then coming back to Rev. Troia after Sukkos to spend his winters in her bedroom.
To teach empathy, Rev. Troia often brings Harry, approximately fifteen years old, to kindergartens of Staten Island, explaining to enraptured young audiences that “Harry was homeless and an undocumented African immigrant.” She explains the struggle and dangers of living with no papers, as well as the concept of adoption. “I tell kids that he doesn’t look like me but he is family.”
Rev. Troia yearns to meet other New York City sulcata owners. Harry had never met any other tortoises he until arrived at the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society show. “He was a big hit, with everyone,” said Rev. Troia. “For a vegetarian he is a big ham.”
I was on the scene when Harry met Bozo, a young small female sulcata, and had to ask Troia what the hell that grunting noise emanating from her pet was. “Ha!” she answered. “That was his first girl for sure.”
The oldest turtles and tortoises in New York City are the two male Aldabra giant tortoises at the Bronx Zoo, which are believed to be over 100. Native to the Aldabra atoll in the Republic of Seychelles, they can live past 200. But even a house pet like a box turtle can live to be 100. Given that the possible sulcata lifespan is 150, Harry Houdini may still be crawling in Staten Island when every last person now reading this article is dead.
Pilates instructor Erico Villanueva whispers goodbye to his tortoise Cynthia every year around Halloween, before he puts her in the refrigerator to hibernate. Cynthia is a marginated tortoise; native to Greece and Sardinia, the name comes from notably bent marginal tiles, also called scutes, in the back of their carapace, the upper shell of a turtle. Fourteen years ago, when Cynthia came here from Los Angeles via UPS, she was the size of a quarter. Now she is twenty inches long.
A former gymnast and Joffrey-trained dancer, Erico still dances in Broadway productions from time to time. This lithe man with a winning smile grew up on a farm outside Buenos Aires in the 1970s, where moderately-sized Chaco tortoises were plentiful. Homesick in New York, Erico looked into getting a Chaco into the United States, but was thwarted by legal restrictions and cost. More doable was a similar-size marginated tortoise of the Mediterranean. He looked into breeders and found one in California.
Before her yearly big goodbye, Erico winds down feeding Cynthia and she grows more lethargic until she is ready for the mini-fridge. He places her in a brown paper bag that his clients sometimes mistake for his lunch. He removes the bag from the shelf mid-April, give or take a week. “I wait for the warmth of spring, but I miss her and once a week I open the fridge door for a minute or two to recirculate the air inside and check on her. That helps the time pass.”
Is this a normal thing to do?
“In the wild, marginated tortoises hibernate,” explained Erico. “It is part of the biological natural cycle. You can do it with a healthy animal only, never a sick one. Some people don’t do this and it is okay too.”
During the rest of the year Cynthia spends a lot of time with Erico in his Chelsea studio. He joined the society a few years ago when he fortuitously walked past the gates of the Village Community School yard on the day of the annual show, and peeking in, realized he was not alone in New York.
This year was the second time Cynthia won a coveted NYTTS blue ribbon. I asked what a winning tortoise eats.
“Grass. I also give her dandelions and fruit, which is like candy to her. I will spoil her with strawberries and blueberries from Whole Foods. My boyfriend will too.”
At the show, Erico brought a likable young man he had just met that week, who looked mildly astounded to be surrounded by dozens of turtles and tortoises so soon after a hot date.
“Now he’s my boyfriend, John!” Erico exclaimed. “Did John mention to you he’s studying to be an Episcopalian priest? One of John’s new duties will be the blessing of animals. And he is excited to have Cynthia go to his parish so he can bless her.”
Allen Salzberg found his first turtle at a Jewish day camp called Funland in Oakland, New Jersey. “Funland was run by three rabbis,” Allen added, before detaching himself by telling the rest of story as if he were a character in someone’s novel. “I was ten and playing baseball next to a stream, waiting for my turn at bat. I saw a painted turtle that dove off a floating log and without thinking I dove in after it. Let’s put it this way: Everything blacked out until I realized I was holding the turtle and I was the center of attention.”
He looked up again, back in 2015. “It was not the perfect turtle to own; I let that turtle go. I don’t want to imply that kids should own turtles caught in the wild.”
When Allen and Anita Salzberg started dating in 1986, Anita, then a copyeditor, knew nothing about turtles. Soon after they met, Anita suggested a romantic outing to the Bronx Zoo. Allen, a Bronx High School of Science graduate who had been collecting turtles on and off for years, agreed, with a caveat: “Only if we can visit the reptile house.” There, they spotted a big sign announcing that a mysterious New York Turtle and Tortoise Society was looking for new members.
After joining the society, “two minutes later his was the adoption chair,” Anita added.
“I thought ‘adoption, turtles — hey, that would be fun!’” Allen said. “A minute later everybody getting rid of a turtle was at our newly shared apartment. Every time I got home the doorman would be there with a box. Often they would leave the turtle and run. My philosophy was, just take the animal — ask questions but the animal comes first. I tried places I know will take care, like The Queens Zoo.”
Allen, a PR writer and occasional science journalist, also volunteered to take on public relations for the NYTTS. Pre-Internet in 1987, he sent a spiffy press release to the pet columnist of Better Homes & Gardens, his first score. Then, with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” mania in high gear, it was easy to place a small article in TheNew York Times, and sure enough there were huge throngs at the next turtle show, and briefly, a membership of 2,000. “Sadly, we are a shell of what were back in the late ’80s,” Allen admitted.
Allen enjoys aspects of the members he meets but thinks some of them anthropomorphize too much. What truly excites Allen, who edits a weekly online reptile newsletter HerpDigest, is recent microphone-based research in Brazil that led to a new discovery. “Apparently certain species and maybe all species talk, and send out signals to other turtles underwater and they respond,” he said. “I grew up thinking there was with no talking for turtles. If they are sentient beings on this level then that boggles my mind.”
Where were the Salzbergs’ own turtles?
“In the kitchen,” Allen said. “We’re down to three.”
Like any proper New Yorker I glanced at the Salzbergs’ overflowing bookshelves before I left. Caught out, I asked the 50-something bookworms for a few suggestions if I wanted to look at literary references on New York turtles.
“A judicious history of New York City would include Edith Wharton’s repeated mention of terrapin in ‘The Age of Innocence,’” Anita said.
“Don’t forget to mention Diamond Jim Brady, the great New York glutton who got his name from his love of green turtle soup,” Allen said.
I promised I wouldn’t.
“You know what you should really do?” Anita said suddenly. “You really should go to Lorri Cramer’s house.”
Who are you going to call when 652 illegal red-eared slider hatchlings are found in a warehouse in Chinatown? If you work for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation you are going to call a 68-year-old woman on the Upper West Side named Lorri Cramer.
“I have eight of them of them left; I’ve found homes for the rest,” said Lorri. “You need to understand that freezing to death is bad enough with mammals, but it is worse with turtles; because of the way their neurological system is set up they stay very aware the whole time. How could I say no?”
Lorri steered me to an extra bathroom where eight tiny turtles scurried around in a container inside her tub. “Instead of a size of a quarter they are the size of a silver dollar now.”
Lorri’s apartment also contains three cats and a rescue springer spaniel, Molly. One of the cats, Lily, fond feral along the shoreline after Hurricane Sandy, is in charge of everyone in the house, including the dog.
But surely turtles are Lorri’s true passion?
“Not especially. Let’s just say I have an unusual affinity for all animals — I live in a New York apartment, otherwise God knows what else I would be tending to. But turtles work for me in a cramped space; they are not wandering all over the house.
“There are not that many now, in my opinion, since I found homes for most of the hatchlings from that Chinatown sting. Fifty isn’t that many to me these days.
“Every one you see I have licensed as a New York State wildlife rehabilitator. It isn’t an ideal life in a Manhattan apartment, but it’s safer for them here. After rehabilitation, many of the ones you see here will be released, unless they can’t be released; some have injuries in which a predator will get them. Sometime the animals came into the country illegally and we can’t get them back to their natural environment; I’m not about to release an African sideneck in New Jersey.
“They come in at all times. I got a call to rescue one tortoise native to Florida marching in the middle of Queens Boulevard in February.”
Do her neighbors think she is a hoarder?
“Well, I don’t. I’m looking to give as many away as I can. I didn’t go looking for any of these turtles. They were brought to me.”
Lorri then introduced me to two South American tortoises that were found in a false-bottom suitcase and confiscated 20 years ago at customs in Florida. The airline sent 350 baby tortoises direct from Florida to Lorri and she gave as many as she could to the Turtleback Zoo in New Jersey. “They couldn’t go back to South America because we had no idea where they were from originally. Think about it: They all have areas they are specifically from. They might have exposed other turtles to infection. These two tortoises are two of the lucky ones. The majority from that suitcase were very dehydrated — an evil thing wholesalers do all the time — they dehydrate the turtles and tortoises so they weigh less and cost them less.”
Lorri explained that many of her turtles come from Central Park — “some with legs bitten off. Snapping turtles are in every pond in Manhattan, all the ones in Central Park are stuffed with them. Most of them are unfortunately, red-eared sliders, which people get as tiny pets in Chinatown. The sliders are fast as hell when they get older; they are remarkably hardy turtles and people start dumping them because they are too quick for them.”
I couldn’t not mention the outlandish rumor I heard from several members at the turtle show: that at night Chinese restaurateurs are swooping in and getting turtles out of Central Park’s Turtle Pond for soup. This was not entirely dismissed. “That comes from a guest lecturer we had once who insisted people were stealing turtles. I can’t say for sure. On occasion this might be happening…But I’m not convinced.
“I’m not worried about who’s coming out, as much as who’s going in,” she added. “What I’m worried about the most are the Buddhists.”
“I’m not anti-Buddhist; Buddhists are lovely people, but there’s many in New York City using an antiquated version of a beautiful ‘release life’ ceremony called fangsheng. Many Buddhists believe it’s good karma to release a captive animal. But in New York City, they’re actually giving these turtles even more miserable lives. Certain times of the year I get more than a dozen freshwater turtles found in saltwater, or turtles released in fountains. The Buddhists put them in the East River, in the Hudson River, everywhere there is water. The animals get really sick. If a freshwater turtle is in salt water too long its kidneys and liver suffer and it will die from it. Others starve to death.”
Every year Lorri wrote letters to different temples, begging leaders to spread the word not to release turtles and tortoises in this way. “No one responded. No one was going to talk to me in Chinatown because I’m not Chinese. But I did not give up hope, and kept this up for seven years. Finally, the Venerable Benkong from Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple on East Broadway contacted me. He was worried about it too.”
Lorri took a drink of water. “Turns out Benkong’s an Italian from Jersey City — but he went as a teen to China to study, I think. He is not only a monk but before that he was one of the people who put together AIDS clinics in Africa. He married women a couple of times before he decided he was a monk and really gay. He is just an amazing monk.”
Ven. Benkong and Lorri Cramer teamed up and brainstormed ways to adjust the ceremony. Benkong distributed a plan to New York’s temples, in English and Chinese. The handout asked area Buddhists to stop and think. Instead of going to a store and spending money to buy sick animals and release them, he pleaded with those seeking good karma to join a group of likeminded compassionate people who will only release animals that are ready for the wilds of New York. Benkong will lead the blessing over animals that have been sick but healed and are going out to the environment. “There’s a beautiful blessing and chanting,” Lorri said. “The next one is this fall if anyone wants to go.”
As a 68-year-old who is a breast cancer survivor of two years, does Lorri worry about her charges when she is gone? She paused. “Well, the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society has a program where you can write into your will that if you die your animals can be given to them, and they will find a great home. I only keep about twelve of the animals as true pets, and only Lavinia can wander the house.
“Lavinia was my first rescue; he had four broken legs when he came into my life. I didn’t know I had a male turtle for six more years. You really can’t tell when they are young. But when they get older, depending on the species, you might see something that helps you identify the sex — the shape of the tail is always a good way. With land turtles, their bottom shell, called plastrons, are concave — wait, I’ll show you what I mean.” She grabbed a male turtle named Billy Idol who only had three legs. “We found him 25 years ago around when the real Billy Idol had a motorcycle accident and nearly lost his leg.” She flipped reptile Billy Idol over to show me his plastron. “With a boy, they are more faded inside.”
Can’t you tell by…a penis?
“Can you ever! The first time I found out that Lavinia was a boy was the first time he displayed and I thought his whole insides were falling out. Who knew it comes out through the tail? Always a shock because it’s quite long.” (A later view on YouTube confirmed this big-time.)
Lorri hesitated for the first time when asked if her husband minds the menagerie. “Well, Mitchell doesn’t allow turtles in the bedroom. The dog and the cats can come in there but he wants one room in the house to be turtle- and tortoise-free. And he won’t do any cleaning — but he does buy their food. He’ll stop and get fresh greens for the tortoise.”
But does he like them?
“He’s come to like them.”
Her kids, meanwhile, go back and forth on their commitment level. “Growing up, they both loved turtles until they were teenagers and then it was embarrassing to take their friends into a house with dozens of turtles. My daughter Abby still has a special connection with the turtles though, although she lives in a no-pets building now.”
She led me to a large turtle near her front door. “This is Splash, who was my daughter’s turtle, and he stayed in a tank at the foot of her bed. When Abby woke up he would start splashing to get her attention. When Abby went to college, Splash was alone in her bedroom and stopped eating and was lethargic. I realized he needed attention, and that he was used to a lot of stuff going on. So now Splash is the meeter-and-greeter. I put him right by the door so he can see everything that’s happening. He likes to say goodbye too.”
Sure enough, a large turtle swam to the edge of the tank for a look, and started splashing and bobbing his head. Lorri smiled widely. “Oh, he’s happy right now. He’s a people turtle!”
As I turned to leave behind a curious world only weeks ago I had no idea existed in the wilds of New York City, I glanced back at Splash, who was floating with legs out. He looked toward me, or at least I projected that he looked toward me. I wondered if he knew that I liked him. I kind of doubted it. His old-man eyelids closed, he paddled away, and I said goodbye to his tail.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 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:
NO VISITORS PERMITTED AFTER 8 P.M. —
ABSOLUTELY NO OVERNIGHT GUESTS!!!
“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 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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
FILM PRODUCER Without a match? You’re shitting me!
MELISSA This is exactly how it happened.
FILM PRODUCER 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.”
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.
COOL GIRL (ROMEO) (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.
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.]
SARAH More like, “Stop being a fucking idiot.”
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.
“You know, Jupiter, Roman god of the sky. Zeus to the Greeks.”
“You fall for powerful men. You put them up on a pedestal and keep yourself down low.”
“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.”
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.]
NARRATOR (V.O.) 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.
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.
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.
“YOOO-UUUU!! … YOOO-UUUU!!”
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.
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.]
ANNOUNCER (V.O.) (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.
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.
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.
“Enjoy this trip because YOU ARE NEVER GOING CAMPING AGAIN, ASSHOLE!”
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.
“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.]
SCHOOL WEBMASTER/DJ It was like watching two superheroes unite.
SARAH He was a garden-variety dilettante with an REI card. And his beard was gross.
HIS COLLEGE GIRLFRIEND Have you seen him play lacrosse?
SPANISH TEACHER I mean, I’m a happily married woman — but for a chance with her … ? (whistles through teeth)
VANILLA ICE CREAM CONE I never met a mouth I liked more.
PALM READER I predicted the whole thing.
MATH TEACHER I’m the one who insisted that he start the search party.
GABE 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.”
He didn’t look at her for a long time. He stared at the edge of the table in front of him, holding his hands in his lap as if he was praying, visibly tense as this small woman with dark blonde hair spoke in a confident, cool, posh English accent. It was March 19, 2018, as Gillian Mezey testified before the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA, one of Africa’s oldest and cruelest rebel groups. Mezey, a professor of psychiatry in London, was testifying because nothing was more important and more controversial in this trial than the mental state of the accused, a former child soldier.
Ongwen sat between two grim-faced guards. His skin had become lighter after more than three years in prison in Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague. He had gained weight, but you could still see his handsome high cheekbones, square face, and a deep frown between the eyes that got deeper and deeper the longer Mezey held forth.
Mezey didn’t believe him. She didn’t believe that he had been severely mentally ill, as his lawyers claimed. Ongwen, she said, had “been in control of himself and the men under his command.” All the evidence, she said, suggested that he was malingering, that he was faking his illness.
Ongwen listened to this psychiatrist, who had never personally met him, talk about his mental state for almost three hours. But he lost his composure shortly after lunch break. He got up. He pressed the button that turned on his microphone, got tangled up in his headphones and ripped them off his head in a quick, fluent motion. In Acholi, his mother tongue, he said: “Your honor, I don’t want to listen to the witness anymore. Thank you, madam witness. You’re the one who does all the talking. But were you in the LRA?”
He raised his voice more and more with every sentence. The guards on his left and right jumped up and grabbed his arms. His lawyers turned around, trying to calm him down. Then the green curtain of the visitor gallery closed. Muffled screams could be heard through the glass. And then the sound of something heavy being thrown to the floor.
Dominic Ongwen spent 27 years of his life with the LRA, before defecting from the rebel group at the end of 2014. When he appeared out of the thick vegetation near Obo, in the Central African Republic, the only thing he had on him was a Bible. He surrendered to a local rebel group. They handed him over to the American Special Forces, not knowing who he was.
The Americans were trying to hunt down Joseph Kony, the despotic, unpredictable leader of the LRA. The U.S. soldiers came and picked Ongwen up by helicopter and revealed who he really was: one of five LRA commanders who were wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity with a warrant from the International Criminal Court. The warrant for his arrest was almost 10 years old. No one had expected him to turn up just like that.
In the months before, his relationship with his boss had collapsed. Joseph Kony had thrown him in prison and threatened him with execution. Ongwen claimed that he had managed to escape with the help of one of Kony’s own bodyguards. He said that he had wandered around in the wilderness alone, for more than a month, surviving, among other things, an attack by a pack of lions. He seemed to believe that a higher power had helped him. A cloud, he said, had guided him on his way. He was obviously happy to be alive at all. His body bore the scars of 11 bullet wounds.
After eight days, the Americans brought him to a Ugandan army camp, where the officers gave him fresh clothes — a blue shirt, light trousers. He watched soccer matches, slept in an officers’ tent, and was told, wrongly, by a translator, that he would be brought home, to northern Uganda. Instead, after 10 days in Obo he was extradited to The Hague.
The French-American author Jonathan Littell happened to be filming a movie in Obo on the day that Ongwen was extradited. Ongwen gave him a rare 30-minute interview before he was put on a plane. “It was too short. I got nowhere with him,” Littell told me. But Ongwen did reveal something in that short conversation. He said: “For me, the thing I knew best in this world was using guns. This was the only thing in this world.”
Ten days later, on a cold January day, he appeared for the first time before a judge in The Hague. The first words he spoke in the courtroom were: “First of all, I would like to thank God for creating Heaven and Earth together with everybody that’s on Earth.” He looked young, slim and handsome. He had nervous eyes. He was wearing a suit for the first time in his life. Someone had helped him put in a checkered tie.
It is hard to imagine how strange, odd and inscrutable the world must have felt to him during those first days in The Hague: his aseptic cell, his fellow inmates and guards, none of whom spoke his language. He understood neither English nor French, only a few words in Swahili, which one other inmate spoke. He was as alone as a person can be.
It was a cool morning, sunny, with a light breeze, when I visited Coorom. A few days later, the heat would return with the dry season. Fields would be scorched, streams would disappear, green would turn to yellow and brown. A small group of huts emerged as we approached in our car, just behind a high field of sorghum only days away from harvest. The compound where Ongwen was born is a quiet place. His uncle and aunt still live there, as does one of his cousins.
His relatives were polite and reserved. The compound had been swept just before I arrived. A tall papaya tree, with big green fruits, stood in the middle. His uncle, Odong Johnson, has the same, somewhat angular face as his nephew. He is missing three teeth in the top row and four in the bottom. At 67, he looked frail, melancholy, his body transformed by a life of hard work, war, displacement and loss.
Johnson told me that, when Ongwen surrendered in 2015, they had just started arranging a funeral for him. They had all thought he was long dead. It had taken them a long time to save enough money for the burial.
As a boy, Ongwen had been the best in his school of more than a hundred children, Johnson said. He had always learned quickly and easily. And he had been eager to please. He never complained about his household chores: fetching water from the river half a mile away, tethering the goats in the evening, lighting the fire for the night.
Ongwen’s father was a catechist, a Catholic lay priest and teacher, a deeply pious man, who was eager to provide his son with a good education. Ongwen often stayed overnight with his grandfather, who lived in a hut surrounded by mango, banana and orange trees a short distance away from the others. In the evenings by the fire, Ongwen told jokes and riddles that his uncle still remembered more than three decades later.
In 1980, about two years after Ongwen’s birth, two factions began fighting for power in Uganda, following the demise of the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin. The violence was triggered, among other things, by a rigged election. The ex-president Milton Obote took power. Obote was from the north. The man who emerged as his biggest rival, Yoweri Museveni, came from the south. The new conflict divided the country, plotting the north against the south.
Many of the troops who fought for Obote belonged to Ongwen’s ethnic group, the Acholi. They fought for the losing side. In January 1986, Museveni’s troops conquered the capital, Kampala. Thousands of defeated Acholi soldiers fled north, trying to hide in their home villages. The new government’s troops followed soon afterward. Ongwen was about 8 years old when the war arrived in his district.
Acholi land was enemy territory for the soldiers from the south, and they behaved accordingly. Thousands of ordinary Acholi who had nothing to do with Obote’s army were arrested. Hundreds were summarily executed. As a reaction to the violence from the government troops, several rebel groups emerged. One of them was the Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA. Their founder, Joseph Kony, was an ajwaka, a witch doctor.
Spirit worship remains widespread in northern Uganda to this day. Witch doctors get in touch with an invisible, transcendent world, which often serves to explain what cannot be explained: illnesses, deaths, bad harvests. The Acholi also believe that spirits haunt those who have killed. They call this phenomenon, which we might describe as post-traumatic stress disorder, cen.
Kony, however, invented spiritual beliefs and practices that went far beyond Acholi tradition. He claimed to be in contact with powerful new spirits. When Kony communicated with these spirits, he went into a trance. His voice changed. The ghosts, he said, ordered him to overthrow the government. These weren’t the traditional ghosts meant for farmers and herdsmen. They were ghosts for a rebel leader.
Kony left his home village, Odek, in spring 1987, with only a handful of followers. Shortly afterward, he was joined by a group of soldiers from Obote’s old army. The soldiers taught this strange new prophet how to wage a guerrilla war. The LRA became a hybrid between an army and a religious cult.
What the LRA lacked, initially, were soldiers. Too few volunteered. The belief system of the LRA was too foreign, too strange, too radical to attract widespread support. So Kony soon reverted to an old strategy, one that had been used in the civil war in Angola, by other military groups that lacked public support: He started kidnapping children.
Children were more malleable than adults. They didn’t ask for wages, and when forcibly recruited, they didn’t run away as often as adults did.
Only one of the two eyewitnesses to Ongwen’s kidnapping is still alive. Joe Kakanyero, one of Ongwen’s cousins, is a delicate man with fine facial features. When I visited his home, the table in his hut had been set with an embroidered white blanket. A Bible lay open on top. The worn pages and frayed seams suggested that it had been read over and over again. Kakanyero had been reading the Gospel of John, the pages about the first appearance of Jesus Christ.
“The soldiers waited for us on our way back from school,” Kakanyero recalled. “They were hiding at the side of the road. They had guns. They ordered us to follow them into the bush.” Kakanyero remembered that on their first day with the soldiers, he and his cousin marched until dark. “We kept changing directions. We moved like blind people, here and there,” he said. Their school uniforms, the white shirt, the dark blue trousers, were torn up by tree branches, bushes and thorns. They wouldn’t take them off for four months.
In the evening, the rebels smeared shea butter, a creamy, light oil, on their chest and back, he recalled. They had been told the paste was sacred. In the LRA, many believed that shea butter, mixed with water, protected them from material and metaphysical threats alike —bullets and evil spirits.
At some point in the first three days, the rebels caught an abductee who had tried to escape. “They tied his hands behind his back,” Kakanyero said. The soldiers had called the children together — “they put him on his stomach” — and forced them to watch. “They hit his head with the blunt side of the axe until his brain was no more.” None of the children started crying. Kakanyero remembered the total silence afterward. “I realized that if I didn’t do what they wanted me to do, they would kill me,” he said. “If I wanted to survive, I had to obey.”
It was a lesson that Ongwen would internalize more than anybody else.
Three and a half months later, the cousins were separated by the LRA. Kakanyero said that he managed to escape from the rebel group after four years. The two cousins would only see each other again more than three decades later, in 2018, in a courtroom in The Hague.
The International Criminal Court was established on July 1, 2002, and its very first warrant of arrest, in 2005, was for five LRA commanders. Of those five, only two are still alive: Kony and Ongwen.
The prosecutors in The Hague knew of Ongwen’s past. They knew that he had been a child soldier, but “it didn’t matter,” former chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told me in a phone conservation. “We considered Ongwen responsible for the decisions he made as an adult.”
Once he was in The Hague, the prosecutors charged him with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The charges included murder, torture, robbery, kidnapping of children and adults to turn them into soldiers, crimes against human dignity, and rape and enslavement of young women and girls. The list of charges is so long that it took the court clerk more than 26 minutes to read them out at the beginning of the trial.
The court would have to decide whether to believe the excuses that Ongwen’s lawyers presented. Bad childhood experiences alone, though, no matter how horrific, would not be enough to spare him. At the beginning of the proceedings, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda made clear that in most courts you meet perpetrators who have been victims at some point in their lives: “Having suffered victimization in the past is not a justification, nor an excuse, to victimize others,” she said. Then she added: “Each human being must be considered to be endowed with moral responsibility for their actions.”
Dominic Ongwen’s case, however, is a unique one. He is the only former child abductee who has ever been tried in the International Criminal Court.
On the day that Ongwen was taken, his mother was killed, according to his uncle and aunt. She had run after the rebels to reclaim her child, they told me. The family tried to hold her back, but she could not be dissuaded. The next morning, the family found her body on the riverbank. She had been beaten to death with bricks.
It’s less clear what happened to Ongwen’s father. There are no direct eyewitnesses to his death, but all family members said that he was shot by government soldiers sometime after Ongwen’s abduction.
Ongwen found out about their deaths, at the very latest, a year after his abduction when one of his cousins, Lily Atong, who was slightly younger than him, was also kidnapped. They met and she told him everything. He may have already suspected it, but at this moment it fully dawned on him that he was an orphan, hardly 10 years old, completely abandoned in a cruel, indifferent world that did not seem to care whether he lived or died.
“He was one of the bravest soldiers I’ve ever had,” said Caesar Achellam, a former major general in the LRA, who met Ongwen for the first time in 1991 when Ongwen was about 13 years old. Achellam walks with a limp, the result of an old bullet wound. He is tall, thin, and straight as a stick. He speaks English with a slight lisp, which makes him seem more innocent than he is. Achellam was for a long time the third in command in the LRA, their chief diplomat and organizer. In 2012 he surrendered to the Ugandan army. He has never been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Instead, he received amnesty from the Ugandan government. In recent years, he has been living in a small village just outside of Gulu, the largest city in northern Uganda.
“When he became my bodyguard, he was very young,” Achellam says of Ongwen. “He had had three other commanders before. They all died. He was loyal, obedient, disciplined. I protected him like my younger brother. He carried my rifle, my chair, my mattress” — the typical duties of a bodyguard in the LRA — “I took him with me when I went into battle. Our strategy was based on surprise attacks, on ambushes. We often sustained heavy casualties. I have seen many men who faltered in these situations. People who were much older than him and who turned out to be cowards. Not him.”
In the early 1990s, the LRA withdrew from Uganda and escaped north across the border into Sudan. The Sudanese government, under the dictator Umar Al-Bashir, permitted Joseph Kony to set up camps near the border and also procured weapons and rations for the Ugandan rebels. Small troops of fighters set off regularly to kidnap more children in Uganda and bring them back to the bases in Sudan. At one point, these camps housed about 5,000 abductees, many of them adolescents. The LRA trained them for an invasion into Uganda to overthrow President Museveni. But that invasion never happened.
Former fighters who went on raids with Ongwen into Uganda in the 1990s remember him as a young man whose fearlessness had an almost suicidal edge. He was shot several times, in the chest and leg; he survived a cholera epidemic in the Sudanese camp that killed hundreds, and a famine that lasted for months. At one point, people started eating soil and grass. Ongwen told his psychiatrists in prison that sometimes he only ate 10 bean seeds a day.
Ongwen was made an officer at the age of about 19, said Achellam. “He was already a very experienced soldier by then.”
Ongwen’s face looked bloated during the last weeks of the trial in early 2020, possibly a result of the drugs he had been taking to treat depression and sleeplessness. He had shaved off his hair. As the trial neared its conclusion, his depression seemed to deepen week by week. His movements got slower and slower, until they looked like a video in slow motion.
He told his doctors that he felt that God hated him. Once, he asked the prison staff to perform Acholi cleansing rituals on him, to lift the curse that had been put upon him.
Ongwen’s lawyer is Krispus Ayena Odongo, a Ugandan opposition politician and former parliamentarian. Ayena told me that Ongwen had tried to take his own life more than once in prison. In one instance, he drank laundry detergent. Another time he bashed his head against a bare wall. He also started a hunger strike, which he broke off after just five days.
On the first day of the main trial, Ongwen declared: “It was the LRA who abducted people in northern Uganda. The LRA killed people in northern Uganda. The LRA committed atrocities in northern Uganda, and I’m one of the people against whom the LRA committed atrocities. But it’s not me, Dominic Ongwen, personally, who is the LRA.”
Those words are all he has ever said on the question of his guilt, or his responsibility.
Ongwen was a young man, between 24 and 27 years old, when he allegedly committed the crimes for which he is now in prison. During the early 2000s, the war in northern Uganda entered its final, most brutal phase. The LRA had been driven out of Sudan in 2002 by the Ugandan army. Instead of surrendering, thousands of LRA fighters infiltrated Uganda. LRA members started a new wave of kidnappings, far worse than what they had done before that. In 2003, the LRA abducted 6,500 people, most of them between 11 and 17 years old.
It was during this period that Ongwen distinguished himself as an officer. From summer 2002 to autumn 2005, he was responsible for at least 28 attacks, according to the records of the Ugandan intelligence service and the army, who intercepted radio calls by the LRA. He set ambushes, attacked army patrols, overran remote barracks, burned down entire villages, raided Catholic missions to steal their radios, and was an unrelenting kidnapper.
He was always on the move, often marching in a group of 50 fighters, all of whom spread out around him within shouting distance. Wherever he went, former LRA members said, he had bodyguards with him, many of them minors. At night they slept in a circle around his tent. “He was never afraid,” one of his former fighters told me. “His whole mind was set on war,” said another.
The village of Odek, the birthplace of Joseph Kony, is set in a flat, fertile landscape, by a small river. Like most tyrants, Kony loved grand, dramatic gestures. In 2004 he ordered his fighters to attack the refugee camp that had sprung up there, in the place where he grew up. As commander for this mission, he selected Dominic Ongwen.
Three former LRA fighters testified in court that they saw how Dominic Ongwen gave instructions for the attack. According to one of them, at the meeting before the attack, he said that it was time to “go to work.” Another said that Ongwen told them to “exterminate everything that you see.”
The fighters arrived at the edge of the camp just before sunset. It was April 29, 2004. About 3,000 people were living in Odek at that time, most of them refugees who had been forcibly displaced by the Ugandan government during their war with the LRA.
The massacre barely lasted an hour. The court transcripts give the impression that the main purpose was not necessarily to inflict as much harm as possible, or to kill everyone in sight, but that the violence was deliberately chaotic, to spread the kind of fear that would stay with the survivors for the rest of their lives. One LRA soldier led a schoolboy through the camp on a rope. The schoolboy later testified in court that “every time we came to a house, he would open the door and shoot at people, just to demonstrate that if we try to flee, he was going to shoot us.” They also set fire to a number of huts, usually with frightened people still hiding inside. They fired through closed doors. They tore babies out of their mothers’ arms and killed them.
The next day, Ongwen got on the radio and reported back to Joseph Kony. The call was intercepted both by the Ugandan army and intelligence services.
Kony said, “Did you clean up the backside of my mother?”
Ongwen replied: “Kici kici,” meaning “completely.”
Around 60 people died in the attack on Odek. On the morning after, an elderly couple was found lying in a pool of blood in front of their little shop; a newly married man was discovered dead with a bullet wound in his back, executed, like many others, at close range. A young mother had fallen, her face buried in the mud, her baby still alive, tied to her back.
Why didn’t Ongwen defect much earlier, like so many others? There were many times when he was hundreds of miles away from Kony, alone with his troops in the bush. There were times when Kony could not reach him over the radio for weeks on end. At what point did it become his own decision to stay? Did it ever really?
Whatever drove him, Ongwen was steadfast in his loyalty to Kony for many years. He was the last LRA commander to leave Uganda after the group retreated in the face of mounting military pressure from the Ugandan army. He crossed over the Nile into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Later, he moved with a small number of troops through the Central African Republic and Sudan. He committed further, even more violent massacres.
The people that were with him during that time told me that he became desperate and hopeless, that he spoke with increasing frequency and openness about defecting.
But he only left after his relationship with Kony broke down. Kony was notoriously paranoid — always anxious that his commanders might betray him. According to former LRA soldiers, Ongwen openly contradicted Kony on several occasions — something almost unheard of in the strictly hierarchical LRA. He was eventually placed under arrest. It seemed only a matter of time before he would be executed, like so many commanders before him.
After his surrender in the Central African Republic, he agreed to record a message addressing his former fighters. He called on them to defect: “You all know how brave I was. If even I decide to come out of the bush, what are you still doing there?”
It is not easy to reconcile the accounts that different witnesses have provided about Ongwen. They seem incongruent — full of conflicting, contrasting character traits. Ongwen himself provided an explanation that might seem like a solution, but possibly one that is too convenient. He told his two Ugandan psychiatrists, Dickens Akena and Emilio Ovuga, who testified on his behalf in court, that two distinct personalities inside him are constantly fighting for control. He calls them Dominic A and Dominic B. One is good, friendly, helpful. The other one is angry and aggressive.
He claims that when he was still with the LRA, he suffered hour-long blackouts; that he couldn’t remember what happened while his dark alter ego, Dominic B, went into combat.
Ongwen’s account of his two personalities has varied. At times he has claimed he has complete amnesia about the actions of his dark self, that he couldn’t remember anything that he did in those hours. At other times he has described Dominic B as somebody who walked next to him or pushed him forward into battle, preventing him from retreating. Ongwen has even said that he could sometimes see Dominic B, his angry self, alongside him.
Several of the women whom Dominic Ongwen once called his wives live just a few hundred yards apart on the outskirts of Gulu. They have built small thatched huts in a tightly packed settlement. Most of them have no land on which to grow vegetables. There is no running water. Malaria is common. They live here because they have no other place to go.
Acholi women who marry and bear children usually leave their family and move to their husband’s village, and their children belong to the husband’s clan, not the mother’s. But for these women, traditional customs do not apply. Their children were conceived in the LRA, under the constant threat of force. The father of their children is in prison, and many of the women do not see Ongwen as their legitimate husband anyway, but as their tormentor. Others, however, still say that they love him.
Dillish Abang, 26 years old, has seven children with Ongwen. Her youngest son was conceived in The Hague (conjugal visits are permitted in Dutch prisons) and is now 2 years old. He is a healthy boy with a round face, and he sat patiently on his mother’s lap for almost an hour while she talked to me. Abang said that she speaks to Ongwen almost every week. He tells her about his nightmares in prison, his new friends — all fellow inmates also accused of war crimes — and his hobbies: He has learned to play the piano and developed a passion for baking in the prison kitchen. According to Abang, he is a loyal, caring, attentive father, eager to find out how his children are doing in school. She told me that he has always treated her well.
Irene Fatuma Lakica, 30, lives less than a 15-minute walk from Abang. When I met her, she was wearing a green T-shirt with winged horses on it. She cried briefly, two or three tears, which she wiped away quickly, while she talked about Ongwen and how he had raped her, once every few weeks. How he had threatened her with a machete if she refused.
Six women have described similar attacks in court in The Hague. One said that she was about 10 years old when Ongwen told her he wanted to have sex with her. That she was beaten every day for a week by his bodyguards until she could not resist anymore. That she had been so small that she had to be lifted onto his bed because it was so high. That he bragged about it the next day to his bodyguards, telling them that he had “torn a plastic bag.” Not even his own lawyers have denied that he is a rapist. They merely claim that he wasn’t responsible for his actions.
And yet, while the women have agreed on little else about him, their perspectives converge on one issue: None of them think that he was insane.
Emilio Ovuga, professor of psychiatry in Gulu, is a small, gray-haired man. When he testified on November 22, 2019, it was a cold day, and he was wearing a coat over his suit, even in the courtroom. He spoke slowly, with a frail voice and dry wit. Ovuga was the last witness in the trial. He was also, perhaps, the most important.
The lead prosecutor in the case, Benjamin Gumpert, took on the cross-examination. Gumpert is a 57-year-old Brit, educated in Cambridge. He has a scar on his chin, and dark, dense hair that makes him look much more boyish than his age would suggest. Gumpert is a tough, aggressive interrogator, whose only weakness on the stand seems to be that he sometimes enjoys his work a bit too much.
The question that day was a difficult one: How exactly did Ovuga come up with the unusual diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (previously called multiple personality disorder)? Many psychiatrists say the illness is extremely rare. Some even believe that it doesn’t exist at all, at least not in its most extreme manifestation — as several completely separate personalities.
“Doctor,” said Gumpert, “if you have two distinct personalities, one of which is nice, kind, reasonable, fair; the other of which is vicious, violent and angry; and you are alternating between those personalities, as Mr. Ongwen told you he was as often as three times a week — ordinary people, even lawyers, people who work in other fields, not doctors, are going to notice, aren’t they? It’s only common sense.”
“It is not common sense,” said Ovuga. “And common sense does not apply to everybody. People who do not suffer from severe mental illness cope with their disability, so that those around them will not notice that something is wrong. In most cases they will not notice it.”
“So let’s just try and understand the mechanism,” the prosecutor continued. “Dominic’s with his soldiers and the women he regards as his wives. The other Dominic, the Dominic B, the nasty, vicious, angry, violent one, comes upon him, but Dominic A is able, by coping, to disguise to the outside world Dominic B’s true personality and to pretend still to be Dominic A. Is that what’s happening?”
“Professor, I suggest that that is — ”
Gumpert later had to apologize for that last, discourteous word. But he was not alone in his assessment. After the cross-examination, German professor of psychology Roland Weierstall-Pust wrote a comprehensive, withering assessment of Ovuga’s work, declaring that Ovuga’s psychiatric evaluation of Ongwen was “insufficient, unfounded, contradictory and sloppy in almost every aspect and does not fulfill the criteria of a professional forensic report according to the current state-of-the-art.”
On the last day of closing statements, Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lawyer, arrived unprepared. It was March 12, 2020. Ayena was standing behind his desk, in socks, his feet sticking out from under his black robe. Ongwen’s lawyer has a deep and powerful voice. He is capable of delivering points forcefully. But now, when he tried to speak freely, at this decisive moment, he couldn’t. He could not remember the words. He had to stop, again and again. Several times he went quiet midsentence, not remembering the end.
Ayena had already started to look out of his depth during the last months of trial. He had dozed off multiple times while his colleagues were questioning key witnesses, including some of the psychiatric experts.
In the last half hour of his plea, Ayena finally stopped looking at his notes altogether and went into a freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness oration, in which he suggested that the judges should think “out of the box.” He joked that Colin Black, one of the prosecutors, was not black at all, but white. He gave a brief lecture on the Nuremberg trials and explained to the presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, a German, that the Wehrmacht during World War II was a regular army “which knew the laws of war,” unlike the LRA.
In the rows behind Ayena, his colleagues on the defense team started collecting their documents and putting them in their bags. Ongwen, meanwhile, just sat there, as he did so often, with his hands folded in his lap, while his lawyer came up with his last, simple plea for mercy: “Give Ongwen a chance to go home after 32 years. Whatever verdict you come up with, the sentence should be so mild. I mean, of course, I know that we have been reading from the same page … and we pray that you acquit him. But in case he’s not acquitted, our prayers remain that you give him a mild sentence.”
Ongwen remained still, almost motionless, while Schmitt read out the verdict. He wore a dark suit, a blue shirt with a gray tie, and a surgical face mask. Only his eyes were blinking constantly, quickly and nervously. The presiding judge took his time. Schmitt went over each of the attacks, named victims one by one, described events in detail: the murder, the pillaging, the rape, the abductions. And then Schmitt said: “The chamber is aware that he suffered much. However, this case is about crimes committed by Dominic Ongwen as a responsible adult.” Schmitt then went through the 70 counts, one by one:
Guilty of war crimes, guilty of crimes against humanity, guilty of murder, guilty of pillaging, guilty of rape, guilty of torture, guilty of forcing women to marry him, guilty of forcing them to have his children, guilty of conscripting children into an armed group, guilty, guilty, guilty.
In the end, Schmitt had convicted him on 61 of the 70 counts. The only thing left to decide was the prison sentence, which will be announced at a later date, in a separate hearing. The maximum sentence at the International Criminal Court is 30 years.
The judges left quickly. Dominic Ongwen, however, lingered for a moment. Then he limped toward the door, his body looking heavy, burdened. He exited into a brightly lit hallway.