Narratively

Please Punch Me

A fear-ridden father corners his midlife crisis by enticing an ex-con boxing champ into the ring for the bout of a lifetime.

Please Punch Me

On a bitterly cold January morning in 2008, Adam Friedman and Alvin Valentine, friends and co-workers, climbed into a Brooklyn boxing ring and proceeded to go at each other for three hard-hitting rounds. There was nothing particularly artistic about what transpired in those grunting six minutes. Some solid blows were landed; there were no knockouts, and thankfully no blood. It was one fight of probably dozens that transpired in that ring that day.

But for both men, the boxing match represented something very different. For Valentine, a former Blood gang leader and longtime inmate, it was a chance to fight for something other than his life; to fight for fun instead of respect, or to instill discipline in the yard or send a message to a fellow inmate. For Friedman, it was a chance to face down a monster that had tormented him since childhood—fear.

That both men would ever cross paths, let alone face each other down in the squared circle, was unlikely. They both worked at Exodus Transitional Community, a grassroots organization with the goal of helping recently released inmates make their way back into mainstream society. But they came from as different backgrounds as New York City can offer, a distance much farther than the trip between the Upper West Side and Brownsville.

“Do you ever think about going back to your old life?” Friedman asked Valentine at work one day.

“Every day, every day,” Valentine responded.

“Why?”

“Because,” Valentine answered, humorlessly, “when you’re a drug dealer you never get an email saying you forgot to put something in the database.”

Alvin Valentine’s sweeping and audacious criminal career—a career that spanned a third of his life; a career rife with stick-ups, guns, knives, shivs, blood and Bloods, gang orders, and an encounter with a fresh one-legged corpse—all started with a child’s bicycle.

When he was twelve or thirteen, Valentine committed his first crime. He was hanging out with some friends in East Harlem, where he grew up, when he saw another group of kids. He liked one of their bicycles. They had it; he wanted it. He convinced his friends to rob them. He approached the biggest of the rival kids, beat him up and took the bike. It felt good. Beating the toughest kid filled him with pride.

When he turned forty years old, Adam Friedman, a father of two and deputy director of Exodus, made an odd request of his co-worker and friend. Friedman asked Valentine to beat him up.

Friedman, as best as he could describe it, was in the throes of a soul-gnawing mid-life crisis. A recent father, Friedman said he did not want his children to grow up a coward the way he felt he had. He thought he would find a cure for his tortured inner life in a boxing ring, facing down a former gang leader who was a decorated Golden Gloves fighter and boxing champion at Sing Sing prison.

Ever since he was a boy, Friedman ran from fights. Alvin Valentine would start and often finish them. Now Friedman and Valentine, thirty at the time of this bizarre request, were about to fight each other. The two men come from two different worlds. One lives in Trump Tower; the other in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Brownsville, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. But on a frigid Saturday morning those two worlds intersected in the boxing ring of a sweat-soaked Brooklyn gym.

It’s Not a Good Feeling

Friedman has always been averse to physical conflict. One spineless retreat from his teen years sticks out. He was walking to his New Rochelle high school cafeteria to meet a girl he had a crush on. He was carrying a copy of a Shakespeare play when three classmates intercepted him. They snatched the book and began tossing it around in a bully’s game of keep-away. Finally one of the students took the book and walked away. He brazenly stuck it in his back pocket, daring the young Friedman to come and take it. He never did.

Adam Friedman at Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem.
Adam Friedman at Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem.

“He was asking me to walk over there and punch him,” he says. “And I should have. But I didn’t. I was too scared.”

That moment of cowardice has shaped the man Friedman has become, and on a chilly Saturday morning nearly six years ago, he visited Gleason’s Gym in Dumbo, a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn, to exorcise this demon. Impending middle age has made Friedman obsessed with confronting fears that have dogged him his entire life. Months before, he finally confronted his fear of blood by donating for the first time. But a fear of fighting topped the list.

As Friedman approached his fortieth birthday, he became obsessed. And as a former boxer and hardened former gang leader, Valentine became the target of his desire to get this fear of fighting out of his system. He incessantly nagged Valentine about setting about up. Valentine finally relented to Friedman’s requests.

In the days leading up to the showdown, Friedman could already feel the fear that had dogged him his whole life reasserting itself. As part of his training he sparred with opponents much bigger and more skilled than himself. He left one of those sessions with a bloody nose and shaken confidence. He worried that the “humongous” guy he fought only went at him at half-speed. What would happen, he thought with a shudder, when Valentine came at him unrestrained?

“When I get in the ring, I want to get hit—I want to see what I’m made of,” he said. “I’m not confident I’m made of much.”

Valentine, for his part, said he thought Friedman would leave the fight a “humbler and wiser” man.

“He will learn a lot about himself,” he said. “He will learn how he reacts under pressure and crisis. He will also learn how he reacts under pain.”

When the day for the fight arrived, the cold, implacable reality started to settle in.

“I feel weak at my core,” Friedman said as he loosened up on the mats outside the ring. “It’s a shaky, weak, unsteady feeling inside. I feel un-solid, like my muscles don’t feel firm. The more I can really picture, not just picture getting hit but feeling the hit, I picture him coming in more, hitting me and clocking me. The feeling of not just getting hit but having to go for two more rounds…”

He added, with a Woody Allen-like instinct for understatement: “It’s not a good feeling.”

Moments before stepping into the ring on the day of the bout, that fear is obvious on Friedman’s face and in his lanky, lean body, which swims in a torn t-shirt. His gaunt, pale legs stick out of a pair of old, ragged Jams shorts. He sits by himself, a stricken look on his face. His complexion is ashen. His breathing is shallow. His eyes dart nervously around the gym, staring at demons no one else can see. The gym is alive with activity—boxers sparring, wrestlers crunching their bodies on the mat with a thunderous boom, the unmistakable sound of a fist slammed into a face—but Friedman doesn’t register them.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the gym, his opponent is smiling. Valentine’s toned muscles pop beneath his shirt. He shadowboxes skillfully. His long dreadlocks are bound tightly in a bunch. He is loose and confident. When asked if he has any concerns about the fight with Friedman, his boss, he shakes his head with a devilish smile.

Adam Friedman celebrates his 40th birthday by going in the ring with his colleague, Alvin Valentine, a former Golden Gloves boxer, at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn.
Adam Friedman celebrates his 40th birthday by going in the ring with his colleague, Alvin Valentine, a former Golden Gloves boxer, at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.

“No,” he says. “I’m good.”

“When this fight is over me and Adam are returning to two different worlds,” he says. “We’re going to speak different languages, live by different rules. He’s going to his apartment in the Trump Towers, I’m going to my one-bedroom apartment in Brownsville.”

As Friedman readies himself for the fight, someone points to a sign taped to a column. It reads “In Case of Boxer Emergency.” He does not find it funny. The amateur contestants climb into the ring. Friedman’s demeanor changes. He is no longer in a ring. He is muttering to himself, working himself into a vengeful reverie. At that moment he is envisioning his young son on a playground at P.S. 199 on the West Side of Manhattan. He is playing out a scenario where Valentine is picking on his son and he is going over to stop it.

Friedman and Valentine glare at one another as the referee reads the rules. Valentine’s fist crashes into Friedman’s face before the bell rings.

Good Intentions Don’t Feed Babies

“Does anybody know what recidivism means?” Valentine asks a roomful of dispirited, suspicious ex-cons.

It’s early on the Monday morning after the fight, and Valentine is at the Exodus Transitional Community, housed in the Church of the Living Hope, a white, crumbling four story building on East 104th Street. In a dark second-floor room with low ceilings, three dozen recently released prisoners sit in institutional folding chairs. A few perch on a windowsill. All of the faces are black or Latino. They are rapt as Valentine speaks.

Exodus Transitional Community in East Harlem.
Exodus Transitional Community in East Harlem.

He is part preacher, part self-help guru, part hard-nosed CEO delivering a no-nonsense business presentation. He is a different man than the sculpted fighter itching to get in the ring. He wears a pair of dress pants that hang fashionably loose around brown dress shoes, and a matching tie against a collared shirt.

After a pause, a member in the audience mutters a response, something about someone who can’t keep it together on the outside.

“If you don’t do anything to achieve that goal you become one of those people,” Valentine smiles knowingly. “You know the type.”

The crowd, loosening up a bit, chuckles in recognition.

“They talk about doing this and doing that,” he continues. “People filled with broken promises and dreams that never materialize.”

“The road to hell is paved with what?”

“Good intentions,” a young man barks.

“That’s right,” Valentine sniffs. “And good intentions don’t feed babies. We’re dead serious about what we do here at Exodus.”

Valentine never had the luxury to fear fights because there was a scuffle every day when he was growing up in the city. He turned to a life of crime at an early age. At about the same age that Friedman was when enduring the taunts of bullies, Valentine saw his first dead bodies. The corpses were new, scattered around a counting house for a drug dealer in Harlem.

Valentine received a tip from a girlfriend whose mother counted cash for the dealer, and he set out to rob the place. He snuck up on the apartment and realized right away something was wrong.

“The door was unlocked,” he said. “I realized someone had beat me to it.”

He crept into the house, his gun drawn, and saw a pair of mannequin-like legs poking from the doorway of the kitchen. As he made his way to the room he was startled by a dead woman shot to death on the kitchen floor, her prosthetic leg leaning against a blood-spattered wall.

“It was so quiet I could hear the hum of the refrigerator,” he remembers. He slipped out of the bloodbath, careful to wipe his prints off the door and anything else he touched.

After arrests on drug and armed robbery charges for sticking up a McDonald’s, Valentine spent time in various prisons upstate. In prison, as he describes it, he did what he had to do. That included stabbing people who stepped out of line.

At Exodus he started a new life, but one that is challenged every day. His old life constantly threatens to undo his new one.

“Every single day,” he says. “Every day. The temptation is huge.”

Shortly before his fight with Friedman, Valentine was offered several thousand dollars a week to become an enforcer for a New Jersey drug dealer. He turned down the offer. But his small salary and the demands of impending fatherhood—his girlfriend was pregnant with their first child—are always on his mind.

Alvin Valentine looks out from his favorite perch in Brooklyn.
Alvin Valentine looks out from his favorite perch in Brooklyn.

He says he is riveted by a vision, a metaphor that reminds him of his desire to never return to prison: It is of a burned ship that he has set on fire after sailing it away from prison. In his mind, Valentine thinks that if you destroy the ship, it is impossible to take it back to prison. In this thought exercise, he has stranded himself in a mainstream world of jobs and schedules and responsibility, and he has no choice but to make it work. It has to work. He can’t go back.

After the workshop, he ascends the steps to the roof of the church and recounts how he had to take an intern up there after a disturbing incident a while back. A client who recently enrolled in the program had become hostile toward the intern and started intimidating him. The intern came from a wealthy household. The client had just been released from prison. Valentine explained to the intern how hard it is to grow up knowing you are never going to have that life, the psychological toll it can take.

“This is my favorite place on earth,” he says as reaches the roof, pointing with a sweep of his arm toward the panoramic view of the city’s rich and poor. “It keeps me grounded. Why do I dedicate my life to this work? There are hundreds of young men down there who are going through what I went through. I can use what I know and get them on a different path.”

There was a period when, if Valentine saw a police officer, he worried about getting locked up. After he started working at Exodus, he says he began to look at police with a sense of relief.

“I know they’re there to protect me,” he says. “I’m the perfect example of what a prisoner to professional looks like.”

Who is This White Dude?

Julio Medina, forty-six, started Exodus in the early 1990s from his mother’s kitchen table after serving years for being a self-described drug kingpin.

“I was this major drug dealer,” he said from his office. “I realized I could use the smarts that I used for a negative and channel that into doing something I wanted to do.”

He performs the unglamorous work of keeping prisoners from the revolving door of incarceration. Without assistance readjusting to regular life, Medina says, many ex-convicts end up back in prison.

Sharon White, who served eleven years for manslaughter and then worked as a program manager at Exodus, says the work Exodus and similar organizations do is instrumental in preventing that from happening.

“The bottom line is that there are people coming home,” she says. “They’re coming home every day, whether you like it or not. The question is, what are you going to do with them?”

At Exodus, Friedman and Valentine are essential parts of answering that question. But Medina came close to not hiring either of them. Friedman came in for his interview with a suit and tie, a sophisticated resumé and a folder containing his work from a high-powered advertising firm.

“I didn’t care about any of that,” Medina says. “I couldn’t imagine this lanky white guy being able to deal with hard-bitten criminals every day.”

Medina indulged Friedman, reassuring him that he’d consider his application, with no intention of calling him back—until he saw the “lanky white guy” interacting with a room full of ex-cons, slapping them five and engaging them in easy, friendly conversation.

“Adam really connected with them,” he says. “It was amazing. I made up my mind to hire him right then.”

Valentine, conversely, started his career as a client. But even that almost didn’t happen. Valentine’s attitude was so disruptive his first day at Exodus that he was thrown out.

“He was like, ‘You all don’t know who I am,’” Medina remembers, doing his best tough guy impression. “‘I’m Alvin Valentine. I don’t need you all.’”

Julio Medina outside the headquarters of Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem.
Julio Medina outside the headquarters of Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem.

If not for Sharon White, who grabbed him and told him to cool off and come back the following week, Valentine isn’t sure what he would have done once he walked out the door.

He was a quick study, however, and soon became an employee, working with clients.

“In Alvin you have this mix that I really love,” Medina says. “He’s a tough guy, as you can clearly see. But he can get across to people.”

Friedman and Valentine’s relationship was contentious at first. Valentine bristled at what he saw as Friedman’s dismissive manner.

“Adam doesn’t realize it but Adam can come across as condescending,” Medina says. “He puts this facial expression on like he’s saying, ‘How can you not know that?’ I should know. He does it to me. It was definitely rubbing Alvin the wrong way.”

Valentine had spent nearly a decade in prison, where respect was the common currency. Now his supervisor was not paying it.

“Imagine Alvin comes here from prison, where he called the shots, and now he’s looking at this guy Adam telling him what to do in, let’s face it, a really annoying way,” Medina says.

Valentine confronted Medina about it.

“He came to me one day and he was angry,” Medina says. “He told me he didn’t think he could take it anymore. He said Adam was a sucker and all this. I told him to be patient. Friedman is a good guy.”

Valentine remembers his frustrations. “I went in there and was like, ‘Who is this white dude?’” he says.

Although friction defined most of their relationship, Medina says they developed an unusually strong bond.

“They are both committed to the work,” he says. “They just do it in their own ways. Something that each of them respect is their intelligence.”

See You Monday

Round one begins with a false start: Valentine hits Friedman before the bell goes off.

“When he first hit me before the bell I thought, ‘O.K., I can take a shot,’” Friedman recalls. Both fighters return to their corners.

After landing a blow and getting a taste of action, Valentine is impatient. He is restless in his corner and eager to get into it. As the bell rings, he freezes for an instant in a boxing pose then lurches into the ring.

Friedman shows no hesitation. He doesn’t wait for Valentine to come to him. He takes long, crane-like strides toward Valentine. Friedman throws the first punch, a left jab that glances off of Valentine’s guard. But Valentine, a southpaw, lands the first blow, two right jabs in quick succession that catch Friedman on the chin. Friedman regains his balance and the two exchange a series of punches, each feeling the other out. They circle each other in the center of the ring, neither man backing down.

Valentine gets in a punch during his bout with Friedman.
Valentine gets in a punch during his bout with Friedman.

Then Valentine sets Friedman up with a combination. He absorbs a left jab from Friedman and responds with a right jab, then a body blow. When Friedman lowers his guard for an instant to protect his ribs, Valentine takes advantage and lands a devastating left overhand. It lands with a popping sound and jars Friedman’s head. Valentine tries to follow it with a roundhouse right to knock him out, but Friedman backs away from the blow and it narrowly misses.

That flurry of action leads to a cautious ending to the first round as they throw some exploratory jabs, and then size each other up. The bell sounds and the fighters return to their corner. Friedman talks strategy with his corner man, who squirts some water from a Poland Spring sport bottle into his mouth.

Friedman remembers thinking, “Wow, thirty seconds is a long time in the ring.”

Round two opens with a blur of activity, both men throwing a riot of punches. Friedman throws a left that Valentine needs to step back from to avoid. Valentine responds with a wild right that Friedman dodges. But Valentine composes himself and sets Friedman up for another savage combination. He stuns Friedman with a left to his chest, then follows up with a right to the face that brings the lanky fighter to his knees, his head bowed as if in supplication.

The referee, an employee of the gym, sporting jeans, a white t-shirt and a gold necklace dangling from his neck, rushes over. Friedman pops up quickly, but the ref examines him closely before letting him get back to the match. He asks Friedman a series of questions to make sure he is O.K. to continue. Friedman looks woozy, but he is ready to go. He nods his head vigorously. The ref lifts his guard and tests whether Friedman can hold his fists up on his own. He can, and the fight continues.

They meet again, exchanging some punches, but most of them are deflected. Friedman seems to find his legs and holds his own until the end of the round.

Rounds one and two were unanimous for Valentine, but in the third and final round Friedman fights to a draw, giving as good as he gets, landing a few shots, and taking some solid blows from Valentine without breaking stride or faltering. Throughout the last round Friedman seems to savor each moment, not wasting time dancing. He is active, taking healthy swings. He advances on Valentine, keeping up the pressure.

“Alvin said there were a few things he tried in that round and that I foiled him,” Friedman says later.

The bell rings and an exhausted Friedman struggles to raise his arms in triumph. The two fighters hug briefly in the ring after the fight. There is an atmosphere of camaraderie in both Friedman and Valentine’s corners. The fight meant different things to each boxer.

A video of the fight between Adam Friedman and Alvin Valentine, directed by Vin DeCrescenzo and produced by Adam Friedman.

Valentine was the unanimous victor, at least to the handful of pugilists who took a break from their workout to watch the odd match, but Friedman acquitted himself respectfully. He was palpably relieved when he scooted under the ropes and took in what he had just accomplished.

Friedman dedicated the fight to his two sons and looked forward to the day when they could watch a tape of it and understand why he did it.

Valentine used it to measure his stamina. At the time he had aspirations of boxing regularly again and wanted to get into shape to go the distance for a twelve-round fight.

“I’m glad there was a knock-down,” a jubilant Friedman said, loping around the ring, his hair matted with sweat. “I’m glad. I feel like I got hit. And I got up!”

Valentine shook his hand and shouted in support: “You got up, man!”

Valentine had considered Friedman a friend before they fought. But now he had a newfound respect for his co-worker.

“I am very proud of Adam,” he said. “I think he did an extraordinary job. Tremendous.”

“He was in rare form today,” he added with a broad smile.

Alvin Valentine congratulates Adam Friedman after the fight.
Alvin Valentine congratulates Adam Friedman after the fight.

Friedman and Valentine shook hands and then hugged. As they gathered their belongings and prepared to go their separate ways the two men said their goodbyes.

“I’ll see you Monday,” Friedman said.

“See you Monday,” Valentine confirmed.

They had work to do.

The Aftermath

The fight became a thing of lightweight legend around Exodus. Friedman earned the respect of his colleagues for daring to step into the ring with Valentine. Medina took him aside and told him, “That took guts.” Valentine would show the footage of the fight to his friends, who chastised Friedman for not attacking when Valentine stepped back and dropped his guard to showboat.

Friedman’s own father could not bear to watch the tape of the fight. He didn’t want to see his son get hit. (Though that didn’t stop him from encouraging his son to “knock him out!” the morning of the fight.)

The fight with Valentine did not have a sudden, transformative effect on Friedman. But a little while after the fight, Friedman was at work late one night doing an assessment of data on Exodus clients, tracking the number of people who were meeting with the job development counselor. He noticed that forty percent of the clients were not going to their meetings, which, for a newly released inmate, is unacceptable. An essential part of integrating back into society is getting a job. Everyone wants an inmate to have a job—the parole officer, the reentry counselors, and the inmate himself.

Alvin Valentine gives a lecture at Exodus Transitional Community for the new clients, who come every Monday morning.
Alvin Valentine gives a lecture at Exodus Transitional Community for the new clients, who come every Monday morning.

While many former inmates who might be tough when faced with physical confrontation, they are daunted by the prospect of sitting down for a job interview. The clients would fumble for excuses to avoid meeting with the counselor. Friedman was troubled by the discovery. And that’s when he had a revelation.

“It’s not that they were lazy,” he says. “It was that they were scared.”

At Exodus, Valentine always led the first meeting with new clients, telling them his life story, using his experience to earn their trust and encourage them to avail themselves of the programs at their disposal. After Valentine gave his presentation, it was Friedman’s turn. He headed up a workshop on the nuts and bolts of what the program had to offer.

The next Monday, before he launched into his spiel, he played the tape of the fight.

“If I can get in a ring with Alvin,” he told them after it was over, “then you can go out on a job interview.”

The following week the head of job development sent out an email to the staff. It informed them that for the first time, not one client missed their appointment for the week.

Going After the Big Dog

About a year after the fight, Medina and Friedman parted ways. They had different ideas about what direction to take the organization, and clashed on a number of occasions over the program’s details. Friedman thought it best to look for a new job, so he left.

When the phone rang at 5:55 a.m. on a weekday about five months ago, Friedman jolted awake in a panic. His first thought was: Who died?

He answered the phone. It was former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, who had served as an advisor to Exodus when Friedman worked there. McGreevey asked him if he would like to work for Jersey City, helping formerly incarcerated people make a go of it. Steven Fulop, the mayor, had appointed McGreevey, famous as America’s first self-described “Gay American” governor, to a position as executive director of the Jersey City Employment and Training Program. McGreevey wanted Friedman to join his team as deputy director.

In the wake of the public disintegration of his political and private life after getting caught up in a gay sex scandal with a staffer in 2004, McGreevey has dedicated himself to reforming juvenile and criminal justice, helping people, young and old, to avoid getting caught in the prison pipeline. He worked closely with Integrity House, an organization that helps women prisoners and victims of domestic violence in a number of ways, from job training to providing substance abuse programs.

Now, back in the public sector in Jersey City, McGreevey is behind an initiative to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline for at-risk youth. The program brings together the city Board of Education with the building trade unions, providing high school juniors with union mentors.

From his small office in a bleak grey building in the Journal Square neighborhood of Jersey City, Friedman paused as he reflected on how the fight affected him. He leaned back in his squeaking office chair and stared at the drop ceiling. He said he has become not a better father, but a more confident one.

“I wanted to show my kids that you can get in a ring with Alvin,” he said. “If my dad had stepped into the ring with Alvin maybe I would’ve grown up differently. I didn’t want to raise them to be cowards like I was. Getting into the ring with Alvin showed that I could go after the Big Dog.”

“Sometimes I Wished I Caught a Bullet in the Stomach Rather Than Do This Time”

Steven Llanos calls Friedman and Valentine “the odd couple” with a resonant laugh that speaks to the absurdity of the pairing. Despite their differences, Llanos credits both men, in their own idiosyncratic ways, for saving his life.

Llanos, thirty-five, was in the life as far back as he could remember, selling selling crack at nine years old. Whenever he got in trouble, his mother, a drug addict, would always be there to bail him out because she knew she would be able to get drugs from her son as compensation.

Llanos was on his way to scoring crack to get back in the drug-dealing game when a wrong turn in East Harlem landed him in front of the white church that housed Exodus. A group of men were outside on a smoke break when he overheard them talking about prison. Llanos had recently been released after finishing a bid for drug dealing. A member of the group invited him up for some lunch and a coffee. It was Valentine.

“Alvin invited me upstairs, he invited me to his workshops, he gave me lunch and coffee, something to drink,” Llanos says. “I never left after that.”

He stayed on—first as a client, then as a counselor, then moved up to project manager. Valentine’s example gave him the confidence to keep his head down and throw himself into the work. Llanos and Valentine had similar backgrounds as children who grew up in a world of violence and crime. He eventually looked up to Friedman as a father figure, a source of inspiration as he negotiated the pitfalls of fatherhood.

“My dad was pretty much not in my life,” Llanos said. “Adam was like the father I always wished I had growing up. When I saw Adam and the way he was coaching Little League, and being present in his kids’ lives, watching him be the father he was made me become the father that I am.”

But that was not always the case. Llanos says that initially he was weary of Friedman.

“It was that old prison mentality,” he says.

As a child and teen, Llanos only saw white people as members of a system that ground him, and people like him, down. When his friends got beaten by the cops, he says, the officers were always white. When he got placed in foster care, the people who wrenched him from his family, they were white. When he was in prison, it was always a white corrections officer who was meting out discipline.

“I don’t know what they call it, transference and stuff like that,” he says. “But it started to change when I saw that tape. That’s when I started to trust Adam. It brought humor. He was funny; he was goofy.”

Two years ago, Llanos relocated his wife, whom he met through a prison pen-pals program, and his eight children to suburban Atlanta. He went to school to become a welder and now runs a crew as a foreman. He does not think he would have made it if he hadn’t met Friedman and Valentine, and says he intends to go back to helping former prisoners make that transition to mainstream society.

Llanos had a refrain he would repeat to both the clients and his coworkers at Exodus: “We are the population we serve.”

The phrase flashed in his mind’s eye when he heard that Valentine had been shot in the summer of 2010.

Before he left Exodus, Friedman said Valentine started becoming “feral.” Friedman said it was hard to put his finger on it, but that he became withdrawn and started acting “gangstery.”

So when word reached him that Valentine had returned to the life he had sworn to leave behind, it was devastating news, but it didn’t come as a complete surprise.

It didn’t come as a surprise to Llanos either.

“I just think Alvin lost track,” he says. “He forgot where he had come from, what he had left behind. And you should forget that life. But there’s a catch-22 at the same time. That life we lived—it’s the nature of the ‘hood. He forgot the pain and got caught up again.”

Llanos says that the longer a former prisoner is free, the easier it is for him to take that freedom for granted.

“You forget about the four o’clock count, the guys you left behind in prison. When you forget that, then you’re in trouble.”

Llanos was relieved to hear that Valentine survived. And he was not surprised that he turned his life around once again in the wake of the shooting.

“Unfortunately he went through that pain, but it got him back on track,” Llanos says. “Sometimes I wished I caught a bullet in the stomach rather than do this time. Sometimes. You need that pain to get back on track.”

According to his old friends, Valentine is working as a doorman and building manager in Long Island City, a gentrified waterfront neighborhood in Queens. It’s a job that McGreevey helped him get once he heard his former colleague had lapsed.

“People From the Hood, We Don’t Do Yoga”

In prison, Llanos says, you develop a sixth sense. When something is about to go down in the yard or the mess hall, that sixth sense starts humming. One afternoon at a workshop he was leading at Exodus, Llanos said his sixth sense was in overdrive. Two clients in the room had a turbulent history in prison. One of the men had ordered the stabbing of the other client’s friend. The old score was about to be settled in the church basement.

“It was really getting to the point where, if we were in prison, it would’ve been on,” he says, recalling the incident. “They made eye contact and you could feel it going through you. Something was brewing. It was about to happen.”

Llanos interrupted his workshop and asked if there was a problem. One man responded: “Yeah—him.”

The other man stood, ready to fight. Llanos pleaded with them to give him a minute, one minute.

“I grabbed the tape and threw it in there,” Llanos said.

The two rivals watched the tape of the fight, saw Friedman’s and Valentine’s preparation, and saw their camaraderie after it was over.

“People from the hood, we don’t do yoga,” Llanos says, referring to a portion of the video where Friedman is folded into a ball. “When they saw Adam doing yoga, they were on the floor cracking up.”

Llanos says watching the fight lifted the tension in the room. A week later when the two men met for staff lunch and held a service, they were side-by-side, part of a circle holding hands.

“That tape, that fight,” he said. “It was like magic.”

*   *  *

Robert Stolarik has been a regular contributor to the New York Times since 2000 and has worked on assignments covering the Kosovo Conflict, Civil War in Colombia, coup d’etat in Venezuela, Hurricane Katrina, Haitian earthquake, and Hurricane Sandy for Time Magazine, Le Monde 2, Stern, Newsweek , The National, and JJIE.

Conscripted Into The Emperor’s Private Orchestra

What do a crew of talented musicians do when forced to serve at the pleasure of a notoriously cruel dictator? They play like their lives depend on it.

Conscripted Into The Emperor’s Private Orchestra

When the rebels stormed Charlie Perrière’s house, he was sure his days were about to come to a swift and bloody end. The night before, 66-year-old Perrière, fearing what was coming, knelt down on the floor of his home in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. He began to pray. “God, I have no weapons, no army, I’m not a fighter. Tomorrow, it seems like the Séléka will enter Bangui,” he whispered, referencing the brutal rebel group that was about to topple the government. “I put all my belongings in your hands … please protect me.”  

Hiding out in his large house in a leafy part of Bangui, not far from high-walled ambassadorial residences, Perrière feared for his life. When the militants stormed the grounds, brandishing guns and demanding the keys to a neighbor’s car parked in his driveway, there was little he could do. He did not have the keys, he told them.  

“It was as if I had just poured oil onto the fire,” Perrière tells me when I meet him in the same courtyard three years later. He describes how the group of young men grew furious at his response, even though he had already handed over the keys to his own car. They started shooting in the air and ganging up on the slender man standing alone in his yard. 

That was until one member of the group — a scrawny street kid brandishing a rusty machete — peered closer at Perrière and, his eyes growing wider, whispered something to the leader. The man turned around to stare at Perrière with a strange expression on his face.  

Perrière held his breath. 

“Charlie Perrière, really? Is it really you?” the fighter asked after a few seconds. 

Suddenly, he was warmly patting the older man on the back. 

“And then he began apologizing, and telling me, ‘My mom is simply fanatical about your music, my brother!’” says Perrière, smiling at me with amused disbelief as he recalls the moment from a chair in his verdant garden. 

The leader told the gangsters to give Perrière his car keys back, and told the youths that no one was allowed to return and pillage this particular house. 

Most people in the West would struggle to pinpoint the Central African Republic on a map. Its international claim to fame is the dire poverty of its citizens and its terrifying, bloody, seemingly never-ending wars. The 2013 war reached a peak when a mostly Muslim faction, Séléka, swept into Bangui, staging a coup d’état and eventually forcing the president to flee. This provoked a violent backlash from mainly Christian and Animist groups known as Anti-Balaka militiasHundreds of thousands of citizens ran from their homes. Those who did not manage to escape were slaughtered, their bodies thrown in the river or stuffed down water wells. Youths armed with machetes, their eyes glistening in a drugged haze, spiked decapitated heads as trophies on sticks and paraded them around the streets. Aid workers watched helplessly as armed thugs took over the towns and villages, stringing human intestines across the roads as barriers — a gruesome warning to others to proceed no further. 

Displaced citizens of the Central African Republic observe Rwandan soldiers being dropped off at Bangui M’Poko International Airport in an effort to quell violence in the Central African Republic, 2014. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Here in Bangui, one of the ways of finding normalcy amid the chaotic years of cries and gunshots has been through another form of sound — the country’s rich music tradition. Whether the rhythmic drumming of the tamtam, the strumming of the guitar, or the bubbling sounds of the balafon, a xylophone of wood and animal skins — music is a constant here. And Perrière is one of its undisputed kings. His fame probably saved his life.  

Years earlier, he was the leader of the favorite orchestra of one of the most notorious, colorful and strange despots in history, Jean Bédel Bokassa. Today Perrière is still considered a national star — yet, like every story involving the feared Bokassa, Perrière’s path to celebrity was far from a conventional one. 

Portrait of Charlie Perrière, date unknown. (Photo courtesy Maziki.Fr)

It was the late 1960s, and Perrière, a talented but struggling teenage musician, was tired of surviving on a shoestring. As he made preparations to leave his native country for a new life in the Congo, he had an unexpected meeting that would change his life. 

Perrière was a star singer in his church choir, and he had been performing with an orchestra that was invited to play in front of Bokassa. After the concert, when the players were invited to salute the great leader, Perrière was summoned to report directly to the man himself. The prospect was exciting — but also terrifying. 

Bokassa is often caricatured as one of Africa’s most tyrannical dictators, a ruler who fed his opponents to crocodiles, adored diamonds and women, and crowned himself as emperor of Central Africa. The anecdotes from his time abound with absurdities, stretching from the beginning to the end of his reign. The night he seized power in a coup d’état on New Year’s Eve in December 1965, he brought his deposed predecessor (who happened to be his distant cousin) to the palace and wrapped him in a tight hug before dispatching him to prison, notes historian Brian Titley in his book Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa. Following Bokassa’s ouster in 1979, the French troops who drained the emperor’s alligator pond at Villa Kolongo discovered bone fragments belonging to some 30 victims, writes historian Martin Meredith in his book The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. Mutilated bodies were also found in the residence’s refrigerator, while locals testified that others were regularly fed to the lions. 

While these horror stories are well documented, few of the historical accounts of Bokassa pick up on one of the emperor’s greatest passions — music. A soldier who blitzed through the ranks to become the head of the Central African army, once he became president, Bokassa realized that military might would only take him so far. As he sought to consolidate and aggrandize his power and influence both at home and abroad, he believed music would be an effective tool.  

“Bokassa tried to use radio and musical groups as part of his effort to create a cult of personality to support his rule,” writes Jacqueline Cassandra Woodfork in her book Culture and Customs of the Central African Republic. And he was determined to make Perrière a part of these efforts. 

Jean Bédel Bokassa during a diplomatic trip to Romania, July 1970. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Bokassa had heard Perrière sing, and upon making inquiries he was disappointed to learn of the youngster’s plans to leave the country.  

So that night at the presidential palace in central Bangui, the despotic leader addressed the terrified musician in a kindly but firm tone — and one that left little room for doubt. 

“He told me: ‘As head of state, I can’t forbid you from going to Congo, but  as a father, I wish that you wouldn’t go,’” recounts Perrière. “After that meeting, my mother had advised me that I had better stay,” adds Perrière, who quickly agreed. “If I had run away to Congo, it would have been like treason. 

So he stayed. But it was a long time before he heard from the great leader again. Months rolled by with no news, and Perrière wondered if Bokassa had forgotten about him. Then, one day, a presidential security vehicle showed up unannounced on the doorstep of Perrière’s mother’s house, sirens blasting. The president — at that point he had not yet appointed himself emperor — was summoning Perrière for another meeting at the palace. 

This time Bokassa actually congratulated Perrière for staying put. Perrière recalls that the leader was seated at a long table with ministers around him. “He turned to me and said, ‘My son, do you know why I sent for you?’ I said, ‘No, your Excellency. And then he said, ‘It was to thank you, because I gave you a piece of advice and you respected it. That means that you are a nationalist at heart.’”  

Perrière continues his story: “He then asked me why I had wanted to go, and I told him, ‘My father is dead, my mother is raising my 10 brothers all on her own, I am the oldest of the family and I need to help my mother. We have no help here, we have no means of developing [our lives].” He told Bokassa that his band played on rented instruments, which swallowed up most of their earnings.  

Bokassa turned to his ministers and ordered them to procure instruments for what would become Bokassa’s “Imperial Orchestra.” This marked the start of Perrière’s decades-long career making music as a private bandmaster for one of the world’s most feared and murderous despots. 

Despite their radically different statuses, Bokassa may have seen something familiar in the young Perrière. Bokassa himself was an orphan; his father had been killed in a dispute when Bokassa was years old, and his mother killed herself soon after. As a teenager, Bokassa was educated in missionary schools and had initially planned to study for the priesthood, before joining the French Army when World War II erupted. After he helped to establish the newly independent country’s national army, Bokassa formed a music band among the military, dubbing it Commando Jazz, writes Luke Fowlie in The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture. 

For Bokassa, music was a power-wielding political tool, so much so that he made his personal orchestra — called “Tropical Fiesta” — into a key tool of his global diplomacy, taking the musicians with him on state visits all over the world. 

The early days of Tropical Fiesta, 1965. (Photo courtesy Maziki.Fr)

“He told me once: ‘Listen, Charlie, the young generation don’t understand the importance of music in a country… It is the artists who enable others to get to know a country,’” recalls Perrière. “This was his goal: to introduce a country through its music.”  

“He adored music,” says Aggas Zokoko, the orchestra’s lead singer and the band’s leader in recent decades. “I think the connection Bokassa had with musicians was unlike any other connection he had with others.” 

Others have a more cynical take on the emperor’s personal orchestra. “He had what we call la folie de grandeur,” that is, megalomania, says Alex Ballu, a veteran radio star and cultural journalist in the Central African Republic. “He needed musicians to travel with him, to augment his presence, to sing his praises and so on.” 

Such practices were also common in neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), under Mobutu Sese Seko, a bespectacled dictator known for his distinctive leopard skin hat as well as mass violence and corruption.  

“Popular groups were required to literally sing the praises of their leader,” writes Fowlie. “Bangui’s chosen orchestras became emissaries for the Bokassa government, touring internationally throughout Central and West Africa as well as Europe. 

Though Bokassa saw music as a diplomatic tool, he also loved it with an all-consuming passion that was obvious to all. 

“Once, we were traveling to Vakaga (in north Central African Republic) when the plane was struck by lightning mid-flight and we almost crashed,” recalls Zokoko. Upon landing, some of the musicians were so shaken by the experience that they ran away and hid, refusing to perform that night. 

“And Bokassa noticed and said: ‘OK, lower the mic down a bit for me. I will sing with you.’ And he did!” 

While Zokoko describes the singing as merely “not bad,” his eyes light up as he remembers the emperor getting more and more into the spirit, taking up a guitar and beginning to serenade one of his wives from the stage. 

“It was a beautiful evening that I will never forget,” says Zokoko wistfully. 

Bokassa also constructed the country’s first major recording studio in the grounds of Berengo, his palace near his home village and the place he envisioned as the future capital of the Central African empire. While some historians see the move as a cynical effort to win the love of the people through music, the country’s musicians benefited financially in a way that they have rarely done since. 

Cover for the 1969 album ”Papi/Massaoulle” by Tropical Fiesta with Perrière as the vocalist. (Photo courtesy Discogs.com)

“The first time I played for him it was in Berengo,” recalls Zokoko, who had been recruited by Perrière. He describes Bokassa sitting in the palace with his family, as the orchestra played purely for the leader’s personal pleasure. 

“Sometimes we would just perform for him alone. He’d sit on the sofa. Afterward, he would say, ‘Thank you, my children.’” 

Every aspect of each performance was meticulously planned, and the musicians, who had previously struggled to make ends meet, suddenly found themselves catapulted to stardom, traveling around the world, dressed to the nines. 

“He would clad us in all the top fashions,” muses Zokoko. “We would play in front of all of these heads of states in beautiful suits.” 

“He wanted all the artists to look good, to portray grandeur,” Ballu, the music journalist, says. “The ministers didn’t like the musicians much, as they would often be chatting up their wives,” he adds, laughing. “But Bokassa always defended them, and paid them good money.” 

But it was far from all fun and games. “When you worked with the emperor, everything had to be done perfectly,” Perrière says. “By the book, just like in the army… When the emperor loses his temper, everyone is in trouble,” he adds, recalling a bitter experience when he found this out for himself. 

Song “Contrôleur ti Quartier” by Tropical Fiesta with vocals by Perrière.

“Once, I sang a song that he didn’t like,” he recalls. “It was a song for his birthday.” Performed and broadcast live over the radio, the musicians hadn’t even had a chance to finish playing before “suddenly the curtains began closing in front of us. We turned around and there were armed security guards standing behind us, gun barrels pointing.” The next thing Perrière knew, he was being marched off to prison. 

He spent one month behind bars, an experience which, shaking his head, he describes as “terrible.”  

“My wife was traumatized. It was very difficult.” 

Upon being let out, Bokassa summoned Perrière and explained to him the particular line in the song that he didn’t like, a lyric he deemed too insulting for Bokassa’s image as a strong man.  

“You, the artists, everything you say or do, it’s heard by the whole world,” Bokassa told him. “You can build someone up or break someone easily. So the advice I’ve always given you is: ‘When you compose a song, make it go through a censor in order to avoid any problems.’” 

From that point on, all of the songs went through a censor. 

Perrière’s month in prison was far from a unique incident. Tropical Fiesta and other bands playing for the government had to comply with the emperor’s every wish. Fowlie writes that another orchestra, Centrafrican Jazz, was dissolved in 1975 at the height of its popularity, allegedly over a spat between Bokassa and his wife, who is said to have favored the group. (Some allege that the group became so popular — even with Bokassa’s mistresses — that the ruler split it up out of jealousy, according to an article by musician Sultan Zembellat.) 

As Bokassa’s rule continued, he became more dictatorial and his eccentricities grew. He had maintained a historical admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte since his time as a young trainee in the French military, and during his reign this respect morphed into blind obsession, culminating with Bokassa crowning himself “Emperor of Central Africa” on December 4, 1977, the 173rd anniversary of Napoleons coronation. 

Bokassa invited Pope Paul VI himself to crown him. Though the pope, along with a multitude of other state leaders, declined the invitation, preparations for the coronation progressed full steam. To emulate Napoleon, Bokassa dressed himself in a 30-foot-long scarlet mantle, designed by the same atelier that had prepared Napoleon’s. It was decorated with pearls, diamonds and rubies. 

“The whole country was mobilized to take part in the coronation,” Perrière remembers. “There were white horses brought especially from France, all the gold-gilded carriages … it was extraordinary.” The total cost was an eye-popping $20 million USD — a bill footed entirely by France — while the population of the Central African Republic was mired in deep poverty. 

Just before the coronation, musicians from all over the country were asked to compose songs. Perrière’s entry was chosen as one of the official songs for the ceremony. “I was stuck for one week trying to compose it. I turned it over and over in my head. And afterward, it simply came to me, just like that.” 

Cover for the album ”Oyé ! Bokassa !!” by Tropical Fiesta. (Photo courtesy Discogs.com)

The song, titled Révérence à Nos Souverains (“Reverence to Our Sovereigns”), became a hit, and it is still featured on compilation albums of African music. 

Alongside the Imperial Orchestra, other renowned musicians were invited to attend, among them Manu Dibango, a star from neighboring Cameroon. The scenes that greeted him upon arriving at the presidential palace in Bangui surpassed his wildest expectations, Dibango wrote in his autobiography Three Kilos of Coffee.  

“Money flowed like water, Dibango wrote. “The church was sumptuously decorated.” But the night ended somberly. “That evening by moonlight, we were giving our concert when a violent storm suddenly erupted, the carriages were soaked, the projectors broke down, the musicians got drenched. The dignitaries thought only of hiding themselves in their Mercedeses.” 

And, just like a sudden tropical storm, two years later, Bokassa’s swift downfall began. 

The key event that triggered his dethroning came in 1979, when around 100 schoolchildren were massacred at Bangui’s central prison, following Bokassa’s orders to arrest them. The children had been taken while protesting an order that forced them to buy overpriced school uniforms made in a factory owned by one of Bokassa’s wives. An independent judicial inquiry subsequently concluded that the prison massacre was carried out “almost certainly” with the personal participation of the emperor, writes Meredith in The Fate of Africa.  

The incident proved to be the final straw for the French, who had been bankrolling Bokassa and his government. In September 1979, while Bokassa was away on a state visit to Libya, French troops helped restore former president David Dacko (Bokassa’s cousin) to power. Bokassa fled by airplane into exile on the Ivory Coast. The Imperial Orchestra was disbanded, and some of its musicians, Perrière included, moved abroad. 

Several years later, in 1986, Bokassa returned to the Central African Republic, hoping to be forgiven and welcomed back. Instead, the deposed emperor was arrested, marched off to jail and then put on trial.  

Today, upon landing at Bangui M’Poko International Airport, the first glimpse any visitor catches of the Bokassa era are the small, toylike airplanes from the 1960s and 70s, in faded yellow, red and white. For years, people have believed that the planes are haunted by the ghost of the emperor, since it was Bokassa, Titley writes, who established the national airline, and the small airplanes date back to that time. During the 2013 war, the planes gained an unexpected — if ill-fated — second life as shelters for people fleeing marauding gangs. The displaced have since been forced to leave the airport and return to rebuild their destroyed homes. More than 40 years after Bokassa’s lavish and garish coronation, the Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world, ravaged by war and strife, the ongoing pillaging of natural wealth, and rampant corruption. The avenues Bokassa built are crumbling, the buildings gutted and reduced to skeletal remains, weeds growing in what used to serve as kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms. Life expectancy is just 52 years — the shortest anywhere on the planet, according to the World Bank.  

Bangui la Coquette” (“Bangui the Flirt”) was the city’s nickname back in the Bokassa era. It’s now “Bangui la Roquette” (“Bangui the Rocket”), the locals quip wryly, due to the brutal fighting that has destroyed many parts of the city. 

Bokassa’s Berengo palace has been extensively pillaged. When Perrière was being held at gunpoint in his front yard, Berengo was already being used as a base by child soldiers fighting with a motley crew of armed gangs, answering to the highestpaying militia leader of the day. In recent years, Russian soldiers and mercenaries have descended on the former royal palace, setting up training camps for soldiers inside the grounds, according to a 2019 CNN report. In exchange, Russian companies reportedly won exploration rights at a number of sites to look for diamonds and gold. 

And yet, when I visited Bangui on a reporting trip in January 2018 — my fourth one after meeting Perrière in 2016 — I could still feel Bokassa’s presence in the ruined city. Vintage French magazines like Paris Match with Bokassa on the cover were being sold on the streets, locals pointed out the sprawling boulevards and other structures built by the former ruler, while the music and songs of the Bokassa era rang out around the city. 

And Tropical Fiesta is playing once again. One night, I went to a show. The venue was in a garden next to a ditch, off the main road in Bangui. Lit up sparsely by a few functioning street lamps, it was guarded by a half-broken gate.   

A balafon player began striking a few notes. A drumbeat, a clash of cymbals, and then guitarists, singers, and dancers emerged onstage, clapping, smiling, and dancing to the complex beat of Central African rumba. 

As the music got started, more and more people began to arrive, many middle-aged, but also several youngsters, as well as children weaving in between the adults’ legs. 

Clutching large bottles of beer, the older men looked up at the stage with a faraway gleam in their eyes. The women, wearing figure-hugging dresses made out of colorful cloth, shook their hips languidly. 

Before long it became a party — families, friends sitting around plastic tables, chatting and waving away mosquitoes, while others invited friends and lovers to dance. 

Zokoko, who now heads Tropical Fiesta, was there, getting ready to sing, surrounded by friends and fans. The violence in and around Bangui had died down, and the usual rhythm of life had slowly begun to resume. Just a few years earlier, during the fighting that swept through Bangui in 2013, live music had virtually stopped, Zokoko explains to me during a pause in his performance. It resumed slowly at first, with people dancing only until 8 or 9 p.m. and then going home because of the fear of attacks. “And we don’t make as much money as before,” he adds bitterly.  

Song “Chante Vanessa” by Aggass Zokoko.

Yet the songs played on, people sang along, their eyes half-closed, smiling as if trying to spirit themselves back to a different era, before the country was riven by war and armed gangs. 

Alongside the music, a certain nostalgia for the era of Bokassa had emerged. Several years ago, youth activists dug out the emperor’s throne, long stripped of its diamonds and rubies, from a dump behind the city’s main stadium. Painting it a bright yellow to represent the gold that once encrusted it, the youths decided to set the throne on a display on one of the capital’s busiest avenues. 

“We were furious to find this object abandoned for decades Heritier Doneng, a youth leader of Patriotes Centrafricains, a group that describes its aim as defending the country’s cultural values, tells me on my reporting trip in 2016. 

“Yes, people speak of Bokassa because they’ve had enough of this suffering, of the misery without end that we are experiencing here in CAR,” he adds. “Bokassa serves as an example, a model of the economic revolution. In his time, we were the best in Central Africa, now we are the worst.”  

Bokassa has earned reputation as a “builder,” responsible for commissioning Bangui’s spacious boulevards, stadiums and many other buildings. “During the reign of His Majesty, the town of Bangui was more beautiful than Brazzaville, more beautiful than Libreville, than Yaoundé, Malabo and N’Djamena,” says Zokoko, naming neighboring capitals. “Today we are back to zero.” 

“It seems that people have forgiven him a lot,” Perrière muses about his former boss. “Because all the regimes who came after couldn’t do what he did. Those rulers who came after brought a lot more suffering since.” 

After a moment’s pause, Perrière adds quietly: “Bokassa was a dictator, he took decisions himself. Now it’s a democracy, things are moving slowly, and people are beginning to miss Bokassa.” 

Bokassa stands on his throne after crowning himself Emperor of Central Africa in Bangui in December 1977. (Photo by PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP via Getty Images)

Rehabilitation of the reputation of a nation’s former authoritarian and brutal strongman is a familiar trend, seen everywhere from the enduring veneration of Stalin in Russia to the nostalgia for Brazil’s violent military dictatorship of the 1970s. 

“Bokassa had his brutal side, particularly toward the end, but he was also the only of CARs presidents who had a vision for the country and built things,” says Yale University professor Louisa Lombard, who has published three books on the Central African Republic.  

Lombard describes Bokassa’s reign as “a time of calm and hope in the country, in a region that had not yet turned to full-on civil war, and at a time when France was still providing a lot of support.” It is not surprising then, Lombard adds, that most people look back on the time with nostalgia, pinning the credit on Bokassa. “The country feels utterly humiliated. … There is an enormous desire for national solutions to the countrys problems.”  

“Bokassa always used to say, ‘You can’t feed people with politics.’ But today, everything has become political,” Zokoko saysIn the 2016 presidential election, there were 30 candidates, inspiring Zokoko to compose a song titled “My Beautiful Country, Where Everyone Wants to be President.”   

Since Bokassa’s demise, numerous politicians have sought out Zokoko and other members of the former Imperial Orchestra, asking to have songs written for them. Sometimes those requests are impossible to turn down.  

The same year that the Séléka descended upon Perrière’s front yard, they tried to storm a venue where Zokoko’s band was playing. “Someone from the Séléka came with 16 armed thugs and wanted to get inside. And I said, ‘No, no, it’s Mother’s Day celebrations there, you can’t go in.’ And so, they realized who I was, and asked me to compose a song for them!” Zokoko adds, explaining that even though he was only paid 5,000 XFA ($8.50) for it, he was relieved to get the armed group off his back. 

“Some politicians still haven’t paid me,” he notes. 

Today, the violence has subsided, and the atmosphere is more free, though the concert scene has not yet fully returned, and violence pops up sporadically, such as in November 2017, when a concert for peace by a local band playing was derailed by a grenade attack that killed four people and injured 20 others. 

Today, the music of Bokassa’s band is heard everywhere: at weddings, birthdays, funerals and more, serving as a kind of social glue, a way to start repairing the splintered communities throughout the country.  

“We sing about togetherness,” says Zokoko. “We sing the songs of yesterday, in Sango” — the primary language here — “and in French. We are not politicians, we are musicians, but we want to give this ambience of social cohesion, so that it comes back to us.” 

Sipping a beer and laughing at the 2018 concert, Pascal, a beefy former director general of a security company with the look of a nightclub bouncer, says he comes to hear the band play whenever he can. 

“Musicians are like philosophers,” he says wistfully. “They have the power to reunite everyone with their songs.” He describes the impact of the band’s diverse membership, which includes people from various religious groups, as well as some who are typically marginalized by society here, such as a musician with a disability. Christians, Muslims, disabled — all united. We are brothers and sisters, it’s the politicians who wanted to divide us. God knows, the solidarity between us will return. Look around: Everyone is here,” he says, gesturing at the bustling compound.  

Perrière, however, is not at the party. After Bokassa was deposed, Perrière emigrated to France in order to get treatment for his son who was sick. There, he worked a succession of different jobs, including in a coffee house, before later deciding to return home and resume his musical career. But he did not rejoin Tropical Fiesta; instead he returned to his religious music roots. He became a born-again evangelical Christian and turned to composing mostly religious songs — as well as to moonlighting as an occasional wedding singer, he tells me with a twinkle in his eye as he hands me a CD of songs he recently recorded for a local bride and groom. The studio in his house is named SDJ — “Studio of Jesus,” he tells me. Today, he divides his life between Paris and Bangui, living off of profits from his music career, as well as the money earned by a Bangui restaurant that he runs, which caters to the country’s elites. 

As for Bokassa, despite being sentenced to death twice, first in absentia while he was abroad, and then in a courtroom in 1987, his sentence was gradually eroded in the ensuing years. In 1993, as part of a general amnesty, he was set free, having served just six years in prison. Perrière was among those waiting at the jail entrance for the former emperor, who had newly reestablished his own strong belief in God. Bokassa emerged from behind bars clad head to toe in a white robe and declaring, “I am the thirteenth apostle.” 

Bokassa died in November 1996 of a heart attack at age 75, and he is survived by as many as 60 children, according to the New York  Times obituary. In 2010, then-president François Bozizé officially rehabilitated Bokassa, and even went as far as to posthumously award him the state’s medal of honor, declaring that Bokassa has given a great deal for humanity. 

For Perrière, his former boss remains somewhat of a mystery. He found Bokassa both paternal and petrifying. 

Perrière performing the song “Amina” with Tropical Fiesta at a small party.

“Everyone was scared of him. Everyone. It was standard,” says Perrière, while at the same time going on to describe how in his more tender moods the emperor would call him “my son,” and how in turn he and others would call Bokassa “Papa.” 

Perrière speaks of his time with Bokassa with a sense of wonder, replaying scene by scene in his mind and then pausing to remember more.  

As for Tropical Fiesta, Perrière is glad some of his songs continue to be sung and danced to throughout Bangui and beyond, and he stays in touch with his former bandmates. “I help them, I give them advice,” Perrière says, smiling. “They play old songs, but they also have a new repertoire.” The fact that the musicians of Tropical Fiesta did not put down their instruments, that they have continued this long and even play new songs, offers a glimmer of hope for the country. 

“Many groups sing for reconciliation,” he adds quietly, after a moment’s reflection. “Whether it’s effective or not, everyone needs to make their contribution for peace.”   

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported some of Inna’s reporting from the Central African Republic as part of its Africa Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.  

The DJ Who Broadcast to One Listener for 40 Years

Deke Duncan’s fake radio station was a figment of his imagination. Then fate intervened.

The DJ Who Broadcast to One Listener for 40 Years

The Deke Duncan show on Radio 77 had it all — the latest hits, bouncy jingles, and a DJ who was born to be on the airwaves. In the 1970s it ran around the clock, several days a week, playing to the smallest audience in the world: Deke’s only listener was his wife. Radio 77 was based in a shed in Duncan’s backyard in a small English town, and everything on the show was a figment of his imagination. “My ultimate ambition would be to broadcast my radio station to the rest of Stevenage,” he told the BBC’s Nationwide TV show, when they visited his shed in 1974. 

In a new podcast episode from Snap Judgement and Narratively, Duncan, now 75, reveals how he made up the news, the weather, and even the commercials — and kept Radio 77 alive for over forty years. It was Britain’s ‘pirate’ radio stations that inspired him, he said, recalling the rock’n’roll ships that broadcast illegally from international waters in the 1960s. But the young DJ’s dreams had been dashed when the BBC turned down his job application.

“They said, ‘I suggest you go away and get yourself a real job,’” Duncan recalled. (Check out an original Radio 77 show, recorded in 1974.)

Deke Duncan, Clive Christie, and Richard St. John in the Radio 77 Studio in 1974

Instead, he carried on “broadcasting” Radio 77 in his back yard. He was joined by friends Richard St. John and Clive Christie, and the trio took turns in the “air chair.” They ran Radio 77 like a professional station, filling space between the pop hits with fake ads for the Radio 77 record store, which of course didn’t exist. “It was just so much fun,” Duncan recalled. “I just wanted to do it forever.”

Deke Duncan in his studio today.

Duncan’s radio aspirations quickly took over his life: He traveled to the United States to try out as a radio jock, but failed. His friends moved on, and his wife left him. The only constant in his life was his make-believe radio show, where he could slip on his headphones and enjoy his imaginary world. Somehow, he kept the station running, on and off, for forty years.

Then, in 2018, something amazing happened that would make Deke Duncan’s wildest dreams come true.

Listen below to the “Radio 77” episode of Snap Judgement by Jeff Maysh, co-produced by Narratively. (Our story starts around the 3-minute-30-second mark of this episode.)

My Father, the QAnon Conspiracy Theorist

After my parents got divorced, Dad began a slow slide into isolation. Eventually he found consolation in the darkest corners of the web. Can I help him get back out?

My Father, the QAnon Conspiracy Theorist

It’s March 14, 2020, and my dad hurries to my brother’s house to warn him that “the government is going to be seizing things.”

Rarely has my dad ever gone to my brother’s house, especially unannounced.

“I’m worried about you,” my brother tells him. “And I wish the reason you came over was to say hi like a normal person.”

“Here we go again,” my dad says. He tells my brother to take what he’s saying “with a grain of salt,” then leaves in hurry.

It is then that my brother and I realize my dad is lost in an abyss of conspiracy theories.

A slender green toy alien sits inside a water-filled pickle jar in my dad’s garage, perched on a wooden ledge in front of old Christmas and birthday cards pinned to the wall. Photos of my brother, sister and I when we were younger are there too, along with drawings we made in kindergarten. Beneath this green plastic being, mechanic tools litter the ledge. Dust covers everything: nuts, bolts, wrenches, ratchets, sockets and the pickle jar.

This toy alien in the pickle jar has been in my dad’s garage for as long as I can remember. Its black oval eyes peer out at its surroundings, while its small black hole of a mouth makes it look like it’s gasping for breath. As the years have gone by, its green color has blended into the water, giving the alien a murky appearance. The alien is isolated from the rest of the world by thin glass. Viewers can peer in and see its suffering. Someone could easily untighten the lid, pour out the water, and the alien would finally be free, but no one ever has. Much like the alien trapped in the pickle jar, my dad has become trapped, not behind glass, but in his own mind.

My dad is a conspiracy theorist. Among other things, he firmly believes that aliens exist and that the government is keeping that fact from the public. This interest has grown to consume his thoughts, and his idea of reality has become distorted. Isolation, a lack of close friends and family, the internet, and poor influences have caused him to doubt the reality of the world. In the past year, it’s become difficult to even have a normal conversation with him.

Also in the past year, he’s found a network that affirms his beliefs. This network is destroying his life and relationships with those around him. It is known as QAnon.

QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theorist group with enough influence and reach that the FBI has called it a domestic terrorism threat. Its members were the driving force behind Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that posited that Bill and Hillary Clinton were running a child sex-trafficking ring in the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. That theory led a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch to travel to the nation’s capital and point a rifle at an employee of the pizzeria.

Since then, the child sex-trafficking ring conspiracy has grown to become an all-encompassing theory of global power, supposedly involving the Obamas, the Bushes, the Vatican, Disney, Hollywood, the CIA and many others — including the FBI, following the release of their document identifying QAnon as a terrorism threat. All of these groups are allegedly involved in a “deep state” plot to control the world.

There have been other instances of QAnon members making headlines for acting on their beliefs. In Staten Island, a man killed a high-profile mob member because he believed he was a member of the deep state. In Sedona, Arizona, a man vandalized a Catholic church because of his belief that the Vatican is tied to the deep state. And in Tucson, a man interfered with water tanks left out for migrants by a humanitarian group because he believed the water was left out for members of the deep state. Most recently, an Illinois woman traveled to New York City to “take out” Joe Biden. She was detained for making death threats and found to have more than a dozen illegal knives.

The QAnon story itself began on October 28, 2017, when an anonymous user named “Q,” whose name references Q-level clearance at the Department of Energy, made a post on 4chan, an online imageboard popular among conspiracy theorists, in a thread called “The Calm Before the Storm.” The thread’s name alludes to remarks made by President Trump during a White House dinner with military leaders on October 7, 2017. After the dinner, Trump elusively told reporters that “this is the calm before the storm.” When asked what he meant, he said, “You’ll see.” The 4chan post, released shortly after the president’s remarks, claimed that Hillary Clinton was in the process of being extradited for her supposed sex-trafficking crimes. The storm had begun.

“I remember seeing Q on CNN and Fox, and initially I didn’t believe in it,” my dad tells me. (During a 2018 Trump rally in Tampa, Florida, which was broadcast on all of the major news networks, QAnon followers stood behind Trump holding up a giant letter Q and signs in the shape of a Q imprinted with the American flag.) My dad also recalls when QAnon began to pop up on 4chan and YouTube, where he spent hours on weekends and late at night looking into various conspiracy theories, from well-trod theories like whether the moon landing was faked and 9/11 was an inside job, to the more outlandish, like a theory that the U.S. government is controlled by a shapeshifting race of aliens.

“Q? What is that?” he’d ask himself whenever he’d see posts from the anonymous user. Eventually, he no longer saw Q posts on 4chan and wondered what happened to them. After doing some investigating, he found Q on the imageboard 8chan, an even more unruly version of 4chan where anti-Semites, homophobes, white supremacists and other hostile groups thrived. But then 8chan disappeared from the web altogether.

The real reason 8chan was removed from the web, in August 2019, was because its network provider, Cloudflare, cut service after a mass shooter in El Paso, Texas, posted a racist manifesto on the site days before his deadly rampage — not the first mass shooting connected to 8chan. My dad wasn’t aware of that, and to him, the major news networks’ dismissal of QAnon, 4chan’s mysterious removal of the thread, and 8chan’s disappearance could only mean one thing: “They’re trying to cover something up.”

Hillary Clinton never was extradited and the storm never began. But the anonymous user named Q quickly caught the attention of more and more members of the 4chan community, who began dissecting Q’s cryptic posts to understand what was actually being said. Q followers refer to the posts as bread crumbs.

The bread crumbs usually feature abbreviations and acronyms, which make them difficult for followers to decipher, while some information, Q followers say, is intentionally false. None of that has stopped “Anons,” as the followers of Q call themselves, from drawing conclusions and speculations, which they share across various social media sites. In one post, Q wrote the word “mockingbird,” with no context, and also included, “HRC detained, not arrested (yet).” Followers assumed Q was referring to Operation Mockingbird, an early 1950s CIA program that attempted to manipulate major news networks for propaganda purposes. Now, the thinking goes, major news networks were being manipulated to cover up the fact that Hillary Clinton was in detainment.

Dustin Nemos, a former real estate agent from Delaware, now an Anon, tells me that he was “there from the very beginning, and started to look at the claims as evidence.” It didn’t take long for him to become convinced of the legitimacy of Q’s claims, because “there were so many coincidences.” These “coincidences” often involved Trump himself promoting QAnon theories, either directly or indirectly, by retweeting posts by Anons.

A QAnon follower holds a sign reading “We are Q” during President Trump’s rally in Tampa, Florida on July 31, 2018.

Nemos relates the Q posts to a game. “They play this credibility game and show they’re legitimate without anyone pointing out any national security violations,” he says. Because the posts are cryptic, and deliberately contain false information, Nemos believes QAnon is able to avoid government officials going after them. “It’s almost like an intelligence operation at work.”

In December of 2017, Nemos created a YouTube channel where he would interpret bread crumbs by Q. The channel was a success, gaining 50,000 subscribers, but by February of 2018 it had been banned from YouTube. “I started seeing a sort of organized resistance from the fake news,” he says. “They were attacking it.”

The primary belief of QAnon followers is that the deep state is working against President Trump. Major media corporations are controlled by the deep state, and any criticism of Trump is made because these fake news networks are trying to protect themselves from the upcoming “storm,” which will bring about mass arrests. “The Q movement was designed for President Trump to go around the corrupt Department of Justice the same way he goes around fake news by using Twitter,” Nemos says.

Nemos reestablished his presence on YouTube in March of 2018 and has since amassed nearly 100,000 subscribers. And he’s only one of many. He believes that if all of the QAnon YouTubers combined their viewership, they’d have numbers that “match fake news websites like CNN.” There’s also a network of what Nemos considers “independent journalists” reporting on their findings about Q.

Sarah Westall, a former business owner from Minnesota, is among these “journalists.” She doesn’t consider herself an avid follower of Q, but she is interested in “trying to figure out what it really is.” Her writing wraps itself around narratives constructed by Q followers. “They really want what’s best for the country,” she tells me. “They’re tired of letting the deep state control everything.”

Westall’s distrust of the U.S. government began rising during the 2008 recession, when she lost her business and then set out to understand the cause by investigating the financial system. “I learned how corrupt our banking system was and everything else,” Westall tells me. She expanded her investigations to include other aspects of society and couldn’t believe the information she uncovered. “There’s this thing called truth trauma,” she says, “and I’ve got it.”

Westall’s investigations eventually led her to Jimmy Rothstein, a retired New York City Police Department officer. Rothstein told her that while he was a police officer, he worked on child sex-trafficking cases, which led him to unearth that America’s elites were involved.

In 2019, Westall learned that a group of Anons were planning on publishing a book of their findings. She offered her interview with Rothstein, and it was accepted. QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening was released on February 26, 2019, and went on to become among the top 15 books sold on Amazon.

Nemos, who also contributed to the book, was not surprised by its success. “The demand for the truth was out there,” he says.

My dad has always had an interest in aliens — a fascination with their possible existence. I remember watching science fiction movies with him late at night when I was very young, which often gave me nightmares. When I was about 8, we watched one that involved a young man in the military being abducted by aliens. The young man couldn’t recall everything that had happened to him, but he would have flashbacks that played out on screen. During one, a group of gray aliens stood at a control deck, taking notes, while the man was chained naked and a drill closed in on his urethra. He let out a chilling cry. My dad watched our old box TV with intrigue as the cheap sci-fi flick played. My heart raced, and I covered my eyes.

This fascination with aliens increased after the debut of the History network’s show Ancient Aliens. My parents divorced when I was 9, and whenever I’d visit my father’s house, he’d have hours of the show recorded. I’d watch episodes with him sometimes, and we’d talk about the possibility that aliens built the Egyptian pyramids, or whether there were giants buried in the Serpent Mound of Adams County, Ohio, or if Hindu texts contained references to an intergalactic battle held in Earth’s sky. At this point though, it was a casual interest for him. He still also watched NASCAR and the local news, and worked on his car or in the yard.

Not long after my parents divorced, my dad’s life came to a virtual standstill. My mom gained full custody of my twin sister and me, as well as our older brother, and my dad wasn’t able to see any of us very often. He kept the same box TV, phone and poor internet service for years. He developed paranoia about social media and the possibilities of tracking. He gradually isolated himself from the outside world. Lately, I’ve only known him to leave Orange County, California, every couple of years to go watch races at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Research suggests that conspiracy theorists tend to be isolated from their peers and turn to conspiratorial beliefs for a sense of community. This feeling of belonging, the psychological trait of wanting to be a part of something larger than the individual, is believed to be due to a lack of self-certainty.

This research rings true when it comes to my dad. I’m ashamed to say that there has always been a certain distance between us. Rarely have we said “I love you” to each other or taken an interest in each other’s personal lives. It is a passive relationship, and it’s one of my greatest regrets. Clearly, my dad was lonely during the years after the divorce, and that’s when he turned to conspiracy theories.

After 10 years of not living with my dad, my sister and I moved back into his house in 2016. My mom had decided to move to San Diego, and my sister and I, who had established our lives in Orange County, didn’t want to leave. (My older brother had already moved out on his own.)

It quickly became clear to us that our father’s interest in conspiracy theories had developed into an obsession. After we moved back in, he decided to purchase a new TV. Shortly afterward, the internet, which at the time was so slow it hardly existed, was upgraded to high speed. The fast internet and new features of the upgraded TV made the outside world much more available to him. But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The ability to search through endless amounts of information has not opened his eyes to different possibilities. It has closed them.

Travis View, a conspiracy theory researcher and co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous, tells me that he became concerned about the conspiracy group after Charlie Kirk, founder and president of the conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA, retweeted a Twitter post from QAnon on July 7, 2018. “I started to realize that QAnon was creeping into the mainstream,” View says. The tweet falsely claimed that the Department of Justice had released a chart showing that the number of human-trafficking arrests under Trump had been far greater than under Obama. (Kirk deleted the retweet the next day, after receiving criticism from other prominent Twitter users like David Frum of The Atlantic.)

“They often told me very similar stories,” View says, recounting his interviews with QAnon members at the January 2020 Red Pill Roadshow in Tampa, Florida. All my life I’ve known something is off — that the global narrative is an illusion and there’s something beneath the surface, they would tell him. “A lot of QAnon people were conspiratorial before it came around, but this gave them a framework,” says View. “If you believe anything off the beaten path then you’re welcome to the family.”

QAnon members believe that “the Cabal,” or the deep state, is operated by people in the upper echelons of society who kidnap children and perform sacrificial rituals on them. They believe that members of the Cabal record each other raping or eating children and use it as potential blackmail against each other. The only way that someone can enter the Cabal is if they’re willing to participate in these blackmail recordings, to ensure that they will never betray the group.

QAnon members tend to see every major event through this same lens. Everything leads back to the Cabal. Shortly after Harvey Weinstein (who Anons believe is part of the Cabal) was convicted of rape, Bob Iger stepped down as CEO of Disney. When Q posted about the Iger resignation on 8kun (a rebranded version of 8chan), with the message “the silent war continues,” Anons speculated that Iger was a member of the Cabal and Weinstein was going to expose him.

Although the alleged workings of the Cabal sound bizarre, Dustin Nemos and Sarah Westall firmly believe it’s the truth. “We have our alien people, we have our conspiracy people, but most people [who are] part of the Q movement just want to see justice in a lawful way and see the country made great again,” Nemos says.

Many who follow Q attach their own conspiratorial ideas to the theory, which has led to some divisions in the ranks. The most notable division is about whether John F. Kennedy Jr. is Q.

Q’s cryptic post linking JFK Jr. to President Trump.

On April 8, 2018, Q wrote a post in which he linked JFK Jr. to President Trump, then referenced JFK Jr.’s death in a plane crash in 1999 and Hillary Clinton’s election to the Senate in 2000. The post prompted QAnon members to speculate that Clinton was responsible for JFK Jr.’s death, while others posited that JFK Jr. had never died at all. Instead, these Anons now believe that Q is JFK Jr., evidenced by the fact that the shape of his gravesite resembles the letter Q. Furthermore, they believe JFK Jr.’s ultimate purpose for talking through Q is to let QAnon followers know that he’ll be Trump’s running mate in 2020. Some say that Vincent Fuska, a QAnon member with a large following, is actually JFK Jr.

Nemos doesn’t believe in that conspiracy theory within the conspiracy theory, and he even says he has debunked it. While visiting a Trump hotel, he spotted Vincent Fuska and sized him up. “JFK Jr. was 6 foot 3 inches. I’m around 5 foot 10 inches. I took a picture with Vincent and confirmed he couldn’t possibly be JFK Jr.,” he tells me. Yet the JFK Jr. theory has persisted among QAnon followers, including my dad.

In this day and age, it’s surprisingly easy to advance such a theory. In the past, a conspiracy theorist would have to “go to the library, do some research about [their] theories, print out some pamphlets and get someone else to join,” View says. “That isn’t the case anymore. Now you can make a tweet that JFK Jr. isn’t dead and get thousands of retweets.”

During the two-year period that I lived with my dad, he’d always want to talk about conspiracy theories with me. I’d usually dismiss his theories or let them go in one ear and out the other. But sometimes, I’d listen.

While I was taking an astronomy course at my local community college, we learned about the moon. After class I went home and talked to my dad about it, about how the moon looks like it’s constantly in the same position from our perspective because of the rate at which it rotates; how it’s lit up because the sun is shining on it; and how it has different phases because of its rotation around the earth. My dad interjected: “That’s what you are told to believe.” To him, the moon is a hollow object that was either created by the government or was put there by an alien force.

In 2018 I moved out to attend the University of California, Irvine. I don’t live far from my dad now; it’s only a 30-minute drive. I occasionally visit to talk about school and see how he’s doing. Each visit though, he seems to be falling deeper into the conspiratorial abyss. One day, I told him about a story I did for my school’s radio station about China’s efforts to grow life on the dark side of the moon. “You think that’s all they got up there?” my dad responded. He proceeded to show me pictures of a military base that has supposedly been established on the moon. The pictures were grainy, and to my eyes they were clearly of rock formations that merely looked like buildings, but he genuinely believed them to be proof. Again, I didn’t know what to say. The encounters were frustrating, because he’d go on for hours connecting each theory and explaining that the government was trying to keep people from knowing this information.

Something happened though, and at the time I didn’t realize that it was because he’d become heavily invested in the overarching QAnon conspiracy theory. He had stopped watching major news networks entirely and was now consumed by information about numerous intersecting conspiracies. He began talking about the Vatican, top government officials being involved in a pedophile ring, the significance of JFK Jr., satanic rituals, and of course, Hillary Clinton.

By now my dad’s beliefs were driving him further away from his family. My sister continued living with him after I went away to school. Periodically, she’d send me text messages saying that he was scaring her and she didn’t know what to do. Whenever he’d get off work, he’d watch conspiracy theory videos on YouTube that purported to explain how various world events were connected. He persisted in trying to show them to her, and whenever she’d turn him down, he’d become frustrated and yell at her, insisting, “This is what’s wrong with your generation! None of you want to know the truth about how the world works!”

Then my older brother came to visit our dad, along with his wife and two daughters, one of whom was born late last year. It was shortly after the news had broken that Jeffrey Epstein had committed suicide. The event plagued my dad’s mind because of his belief that Epstein was a member of the deep state. Rather than speak with his son and grandchildren, he went on a rant about the government’s involvement with Epstein and other conspiracies. Frustrated, my brother told him to stop. Which he did. Then he asked if he could show them something.

He played a YouTube video that showed images of violence and destruction, along with an ominous message: The government is trying to kill everybody.

“Dad, can you turn that off, please, nobody wants to hear that,” my brother told him.

I also went to visit my dad shortly after Epstein’s death. At the time, my sister was planning a trip to Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek through the northern part of the country. She’d spent months planning the trip, but hadn’t told my dad. She was nervous that he’d tell her not to go, and she feared he’d be jealous that she was going on the journey with my mom’s new husband. While I was visiting, she finally built up the gumption to tell him, a week before she was supposed to leave.

He was taken aback and seemed in disbelief. When he asked her why, she responded, “Because I feel like I haven’t done anything with my life.” With tears welling up, she added, “I feel like I’m stuck.”

My dad became rageful and yelled at her, “You’re stuck! Your life is stuck? I’ve been stuck for over 20 years!”

He hounded her, trying to look her in the face, as she stared at the cement floor, tears falling. He stuck out his index finger, while clutching the others, and pointed it directly at his temple. “Every single day I want to put a bullet in my head!”

My sister went to her room, crying, and I stayed with my dad in the garage. He was audibly annoyed, but still expressed worry about his daughter. After some time, he pulled out his laptop and showed me another conspiracy theory.

This made me consider that, perhaps, conspiracy theories were a way for him to escape his surrounding world, allowing him to avoid the reality of his life.

My dad had had a lonely childhood. His own father had left the family when my dad was young, and his mother was emotionally detached. From what I’ve been able to piece together, he seemed to rely on the guidance of others to mold his worldview, often taking whatever information was handed to him. He’s told me that while growing up he encountered many Vietnam veterans who told him “crazy shit,” and he’s talked often about his first boss, who seems to have left quite an impression on him.

He was a skilled mechanic even when he was still in high school. He often reminisces about the time an auto shop owner came to his 10th-grade class and asked, “Who’s the best mechanic in this school?”

My dad instantly stood up: “I am. There’s not a single person here who knows a car as well as I do.”

Satisfied by the answer, the shop owner offered him an apprenticeship.

This shop owner, an older man with red hair and a Scottish drawl my dad still likes to poke fun at, became a source of guidance for him. He gave my dad the opportunity to practice his future profession, and also offered musings on life (and provided alcohol). I imagine my dad standing in the garage of the auto shop, sipping a beer, with this Scottish man standing before him. Drills blare and hydraulic jacks move cars up and down. “Listen kid, there’s a lot you don’t understand about the world,” he tells him.

I imagine my dad in that pivotal moment. I picture him feeling hesitant, then thinking to himself, Maybe he’s right?

Anons refer to believing in the Cabal as being “red-pilled.” The idea comes from the science fiction film The Matrix, in which Morpheus, a futuristic rebel, gives a regular cubicle worker named Thomas Anderson (the soon-to-be Neo) the option to take either a red pill or a blue pill. The blue pill will keep him ignorant, returning him to the world as he has always known it, while the red pill will strip away the facade and awaken him to the shocking truth about reality. The parallel of political party colors is obvious as well, as followers of Q tend to be Republican.

The idea of waking up from a dreamlike state and confronting reality isn’t anything new. It stems back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks, notably to Plato’s allegory of the cave, which tells the story of a group of prisoners forced to interpret the world based on the shadows they see projected on the wall of a cave. One prisoner decides that he wants to see the outside, breaks free, and goes on an intellectual journey to understand the true meaning of the world. He eventually returns to urge the other prisoners to leave, but they dismiss him and threaten to kill him if he tries to set them free. The allegory is essentially about humans being willfully blind, for fear of learning the true nature of the world.

In 21st-century America, the shadows on the cave wall are mass media networks, which the general public, who are the prisoners, are forced to watch because of the Cabal. The Anons view themselves as those who have escaped the cave. It’s ironic because the cryptic posts that Q provides his followers act as shadows. The modern world has become insular, and people are able to dictate what information they feed themselves. Anons choose Q. The problem with QAnon, according to Travis View, is that “they’re saying to reject everything. Don’t trust any outside sources — except what we provide for you.”

Travis View, conspiracy theory researcher and co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous, highlights Trump’s retweet of a QAnon follower.

They believe that once the “oncoming storm” that Trump elusively mentioned in 2017 is complete, it will bring about a “Great Awakening,” a period when mass arrests will occur and “people wake up to the way things really are,” as Nemos puts it.

I try to imagine: What would it be like to believe in this alternative narrative? Would it be terrifying?

As COVID-19 has taken hold of the world, major news networks have tirelessly reported on its unfolding. But Anons and “independent journalists” who look to Q for guidance have reported on the pandemic in a different way. Although Q has been silent about the virus, Anons have decided to construct their own narrative about what the outbreak implies. They believe that the virus is the storm they’ve been expecting. While some Anons believe lockdown restrictions have been put in place for the deep state to exercise their authority, and have taken to the streets to protest, others say COVID-19 was introduced to the public as a military operation to weed out members of the Cabal. The only people who can be affected by the virus are those who have drunk the blood of children. People like Tom Hanks aren’t actually being quarantined when they contract the virus, but arrested.

Some followers have gone a step further and said that the stay-at-home orders are in place so that the military can rescue children who are being held captive underground by the Cabal. Vincent Fuska, the man some Anons believe is JFK Jr., supports the theory. “35,000 and many more to come,” he tweeted recently, supposedly a reference to the number of children rescued, along with a link to an article written by an “independent journalist.”

On one Q-focused website my dad visits, the creator made a meme of Pepe frogs wearing MAGA hats, sitting in a theater while President Trump hands out popcorn and tells them to enjoy the show. The meme alludes to the spread of COVID-19, and the post that followed showed executive orders that President Kennedy signed authorizing seizures of public property in the event of an emergency. These posts are what prompted my dad to hurry off to my brother’s house with his dire warning about the government this March.

A Pepe frog meme circulated on Empowering Better Humans Club, a Q-focused website.

“Our democracy is predicated on being suspicious about power,” Timothy Melley, a professor of English at Miami University and author of several books exploring the history of conspiracy theories, tells me. “Whether it’s Obama or Trump, we’re supposed to say, ‘Wait a minute, I want to know for myself.’” The problem, though, he explains, is that President Trump is “willing to personally articulate at his rallies that there are government deep-state elements that are deliberately trying to take him down and undermine him.”

What happens when a nation’s leader is conspiratorial? People who are susceptible to conspiracy theories become manipulated and go into overdrive, because a person in power finally represents them. People, like my dad, lose themselves

Dad, if you’re reading this, please know that I love you and I’m concerned for your well-being. I’m sorry for not always being there for you, emotionally as your son, and taking you for granted. The world right now is a terrifying, confusing place, and the weight of it all can be crushing and demoralizing. But I can’t stand by and watch you give yourself to this groupthink filled with false hopes, while also knowing there are so many others like you.

For readers who also have family members who’ve dabbled or are lost in conspiratorial thinking, please consider them as a human being. Think about: why have they shunned themselves into a world of lies? And what can we do to help them?

In February, I texted my dad to ask if I could interview him about conspiracy theories. He messaged me back, saying, “You mean conspiracy facts!” and “Are you sure you want to be red-pilled?” I told him yes. I am ready for it.

I meet with him on February 27, 2020, and he is eager to talk. Our conversation begins in his garage, with his mechanic tools and NASCAR memorabilia on the walls. The pickled alien looks over it all.

We both light cigarettes, and I sit near an engine block he’s been working on for years. Before he delves into our talk about conspiracy theories, he tells me to look up a song. It’s David Gilmour’s “There’s No Way Out of Here.”

“OK, I want you to listen to the lyrics in this song,” he tells me.

The song opens with a guitar strum and a lonely harmonica that pulses with low tones. There’s no way out of here, when you come in, you’re in for good, Gilmour sings in an apathetic voice.

“OK, who wrote this song?” he asks.

“Gilmour?” I respond.

“That’s what everybody believes, but a guy named Ken Baker did. Who was Ken Baker?”

I shrug my shoulders.

“Ah,” he lets out. “Why is it that nobody knows who Ken Baker is? If you look online, you can’t find a single thing about this guy. Keep listening to the lyrics.”

There are no answers here, when you look out, you don’t see in, Gilmour sings. My dad gestures at himself and tells me that there’s an energy being held captive in the body, and that this energy moves from body to body during various life spans.

“Like reincarnation?” I ask him.

“Some people call it that, but who’s keeping that energy in there?”

I shrug again.

“There’s people out there who are trying to keep this information from the world. Now, what happened to Ken Baker?” my dad asks me again, but he quickly answers his own question: “They took him out because he was trying to expose the truth.”

My dad looks me in the eyes. His face is tired with age. He looks confused.

“This shit’s heavy, Reed, you don’t realize how deep it goes. You want to talk about conspiracies, we’ll talk.”

Yes, it is heavy, and it hurts, I want to tell him, but I love you, and I’m sorry that I won’t take the red pill. I hope you can find your way back home.

The Astonishing Rise of “Blair the Flair”

He’s been a Beverly Hills rich kid, a teen on the run with his drug-kingpin dad, and a homeless father scraping to get by. Next stop for Blair Cobbs: world champion boxer.

The Astonishing Rise of “Blair the Flair”

Chapter 1: The Fugitive Father

The night of December 18, 2004, began as an ordinary evening for Blair Cobbs’s father, Eugene. At 33, the elder Cobbs was already a seasoned veteran of the drug trafficking trade. He was flying solo to his hometown of Philadelphia, having taken off from Compton Airport near Los Angeles. After a quick fuel-up in Missouri, it was somewhere over West Virginia that things began to go bad for the self-taught pilot. He was flying above a snowy, wooded landscape when mechanical problems compelled him to scramble for the nearest landing strip. He was forced to attempt an emergency touchdown at the Wheeling Ohio County Airport. It was going to be a tricky landing, as the tower was closed and lighting was limited. 

Eugene descended late, missed the runway, and skidded on the ramp, before regaining altitude and hurtling into a ravine in the woods surrounding the airport. Miraculously, he exited the aircraft basically uninjured, save a minor head wound. But he had little time to linger. It’s unknown whether he turned to consider the plane’s $24 million haul of cocaine, but what he did do was flee through the woods, leaving it all behind. 

When he came to a road near the airport entrance, he flagged down the first driver he saw. He waved a wad of $100 bills and asked for a ride. The driver said that Eugene, who asked where exactly he was, had a gash on his head.

Airport officials would not discover the wreckage until early the next morning, when a worker on a routine field check noticed that a section of the eight-foot perimeter fence near runway 21 was damaged. The plane was then spotted, and proper authorities and responders were dispatched. Airport manager Thomas Tominack’s initial reaction was that the pilot was lucky to have survived, as portions of the aircraft, including a detached wing, were strewn throughout the vicinity. “The survival rate at that particular crash scene would have been very, very, low,” Tominack says. “It was a bad crash.” He notes that the plane didn’t even land at the airport, but rather bounced off the ramp before hitting the top of the fence and landing in a ravine amid a patch of what locals call “tanglefoot.”

The second thought responders had was that there sure was a hell of a lot of cocaine on board. “I know one thing,” Sheriff Bernie Kazienko told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “it was the most dope I’d ever seen.” Indeed, it was the largest drug seizure ever in West Virginia at the time, with 525 pounds inside the airplane. According to the Northern District of West Virginia’s District Attorney’s Office, investigators “uncovered numerous packages of cocaine wrapped in various forms, including duct tape, saran wrap, vacuum sealed bags, and even as Christmas presents.” Photographs were taken of the tall stacks of cocaine. Longtime West Virginia lawman Richard Ferguson recounts that “it was like after somebody killed a large bear or something,” with everyone wanting their turn to pose with the evidence. 

Eugene’s first order of business after the crash was to get the hell out of West Virginia. He checked in to a Holiday Inn Express outside of Weirton under the name of Marquis Munroe. He stayed for one night before making his way out of town. 

Meanwhile, investigators began piecing things together at the crash site. With no pilot present, they moved on to the plane itself. Records showed that the Aerostar had been purchased in Alabama for $290,000 in cash. The invoice was signed without a personal signature, only the name of a company, Pacific Designers Inc., out of Beverly Hills. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had been keeping tabs on the plane, and by the time of the crash they were familiar with the identity of the pilot, according to United States Marshal Terry Moore. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had also been keeping an eye on Eugene, who was described as a notoriously bad pilot known to frequent small, quiet airports where he could fuel up and depart quickly. According to the Post-Gazette, the FAA had put his plane on a watch list, having cited him on four occasions since 2001, offenses including reckless flying, disregarding air traffic control signals, and lying about his medical status. The FAA had ordered him to retake his flying exam. Eugene had refused, and his pilot’s license had been revoked. He continued to fly, however, using his plane to deliver drugs all over the country. Prior to the crash, federal agents in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Chicago had all been looking into his cocaine distribution business.

Newspaper clip from The Intelligencer in Wheeling, West Virginia, reporting on Eugene Cobbs’ plane crash. (Image courtesy The Intelligencer/theintelligencer.net)

“On December 20, 2004, the DEA was able to obtain a warrant for Mr. Cobbs’s arrest,” says Moore. Subsequently, “There were many attempts to locate him throughout the U.S. He had ties to Philadelphia and California, so pretty much the span of the United States. And nobody was able to find him at the time … Mr. Cobbs was a fugitive from justice.”

Eugene Cobbs went on the lam. Back in California, his son, Blair, was about to have his world changed forever.

Chapter 2: The Rich Kid in Beverly Hills

At the time of the crash, Blair Cobbs was 15. He remembers vividly the day he learned that something was wrong. He had been living easy with his father and stepmother, along with a younger sister, in a grand, white Victorian mansion in the Hollywood Hills. (Documents would later reveal that Eugene Cobbs had a cover business under the name of Builders Plus Management, Inc. Blair’s stepmother owned a beauty salon.) Blair attended the Beverly Hills school that served as the inspiration for the high school in one of his favorite movies at the time, Clueless.

“I was pretty well off,” Blair tells me over coffee at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. “You know, when you’re doing good it just sort of seems normal, especially when you’re a kid. It’s like, ‘You don’t have an airplane? I have an airplane. We all got a Bentley. No? Well you’re going to get one, surely.’”

Blair’s life hadn’t always been so luxurious. His mother died when he was 11, and his grandmother, whom he was close with, died the same year. He and his stepmother never really bonded. She had a son Blair’s age from a previous relationship, and Blair never felt accepted. As a young teenager, Cobbs, who is mixed race, was picked on relentlessly. In middle school, he was perceived as the white kid in a predominately black school, with red hair to boot. “Even though I’m mixed, I don’t really have a race as far as my features,” he says. “I was called cracker. … Those were a really bad few years.”

But by 2004, after a change of schools, those days were behind him. “Everything was cool sailing for like a year in Beverly Hills.”

Then one day he came home to a DEA raid. His stepmother was crying, and all he knew was that something really bad had happened. She didn’t have a lot of details. Maybe his dad was alive, maybe not. Cobbs couldn’t get a straight answer. “That’s when it really hit me,” he says. “You can feel it before it happens, that you lost it all.” 

In the ensuing months, Cobbs struggled in his father’s absence. He didn’t know about the crash, but he began to piece things together. “It kinda crept up on me that it must have been something illegal when I started noticing [unusual] things,” such as his phone being “obviously” tapped, full of echoes and strange noises every time he picked it up, and an unmarked white van parked in front of his house, around the clock, with men wearing headphones seated inside. The strange feeling of being under surveillance actually stirred some hope inside the young teen. “Maybe my dad’s not dead.”

Chapter 3: A Teenager On The Run

Six months after the crash, it was summer in Beverly Hills, and his dad was still gone. Then Blair experienced another day in which everything changed. His stepmother instructed him to pack everything he could fit into one duffel bag. His sister did the same. They were given a couple of “horrible fake IDs” and ushered into a car. His stepmom drove south toward Mexico. When they got to the border, the children were dropped off by their stepmom, given minimal instructions, just a list of checkpoints about where to go — and with that, the kids walked into a foreign country alone. First a taxi, then a bus, deep into Mexico. That’s when Cobbs bottomed out: fear, dread and utter uncertainty. Would they live or die? Only the task of taking care of his younger sister drove him. “Just as long as my sister’s OK, that was propelling me to keep moving forward, because she was there with me.” 

Somewhere near Tepatitlán de Morelos, in the state of Jalisco, a full 1,623 miles into their journey, they finally saw their father. They could breath easier, but only a little bit. 

From Tepatitlán, the Cobbs family moved on to Guadalajara. There, using a fake name, Blair enrolled in a high school with an intense Spanish program, to try to get him up to speed on a language he did not speak. 

They lived with their father and his girlfriend, and though Eugene wasn’t around much, Blair’s sister was now safe, and with that knowledge Blair struck out on his own, wandering the city, getting to know the streets. “The whole city was all about circles; one highway circles the whole city, called Periférico. You can get almost anywhere through the Periférico.” He felt like a drifter. And though he was getting to know the city, he felt like he didn’t know himself. The fact that they were all using aliases triggered a deep sense of loss in Blair, a loss of self. “You start forgetting yourself completely,” he says.

No identity, no roots. Blair felt as if he didn’t belong to any group, that he had no culture to claim. “I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m not Mexican.” He was out of place yet again. The Americano in Mexico. Sticking out like a sore thumb. 

Eugene Cobbs had shaken U.S. law enforcement, but his problems had not eased. Looking back, Blair says he understands why his father tried to shield them from the reality of the situation, but, still, the kids knew it wasn’t good. “Things always happened,” Blair remembers. “It was a very hazardous place. … You’d get held up at gunpoint, or people would break into your crib with AKs,” he says with the nonchalance others might use to describe a noisy neighbor. If it wasn’t a gang, it was the cops, he says, and if not them then simply citizens, random people looking to get a piece: “Because you look like you have some money, because you look like you don’t belong there.” Each day he lived with a prevailing fear that the bad guys were closing in. It felt like they were just waiting “until someone knocks us off.” 

Blair doubted he would ever get out of Mexico. 

Then he met a friend. On a lonely Mexican basketball court, he ran into 15-year-old Rodney Pinz, who was from the States and spoke English. The two started hanging out, but the fugitive’s son remained guarded. “Even if I couldn’t tell him who I really was, it was cool to have at least one friend,” Cobbs says. “That friend probably saved my life.”

Pinz remembers a presence of fear engulfing Cobbs’s home. “He definitely seemed down,” Pinz says. “So I invited him into my world. I had him meet friends, meet girls, good stuff, teenage stuff. He would come to my house. My family made him food.”

A shared affinity for boxing led the pair across town, “to the ghetto,” Pinz says. “Like the ghetto ghetto” — where they found a gym known as El Lobo (the Wolf). 

Chapter 4: A Boxer in Mexico Named Romero

Blair Cobbs had long revered the sport of boxing. But while he was eager to learn, he was short on skill. He had no idea how to block or defend. He took a shitload of punches. He remembers his first sessions at El Lobo: “I beat the first guy I ever sparred, and then I got beat up real bad by the next guy. I didn’t know the rounds lasted more than 30 seconds. I got tired.”

Gym where Blair Cobbs started training in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. This is the same gym that Mexican boxer Canelo Álvarez learned to box, and it is known for its rigorous training style.

Black eyes were a constant companion as a result of his new hobby. It mattered not.

“I never stopped coming.” 

One Saturday, after about a week at the gym, Cobbs had an opportunity to box a real bout. “You think I should fight?” Pinz remembers him asking. “I was like, ‘Man we just got here.’ But he fought and he won!”

An old trainer at the gym started tutoring him, working to bend him into fighting shape. Cobbs began working out at the gym from sunrise to sundown, sparring and learning combinations. The trainer put him through 10- to 12-round full-body sparring sessions. Cobbs was still just a kid, but he was already fighting professionals. 

At nightfall, he would grab an agua fresca or something to eat at a taco stand and then return. Besides sparring, he’d swim and run. “I never stopped working,” he says. In reality, he simply had nowhere else to go, and nothing else he cared about. “So I would just train until I couldn’t train anymore. And then I’d show up again.” 

Since he’d left California, Cobbs’s hair had grown into a high, red-tinted Afro. When they asked him his name at the gym, “I used my middle name, Romero,” he says. “And a very conventional last name. At the time I really liked Roy Jones, so I just called myself Romero Jones.”

Each weekend, the local gym held “smokers” — unregulated amateur boxing exhibitions. Fighters showed up looking to make an impression. Cobbs was an outsider, and the spectators were usually not on his side. But he learned how to work the crowd. How to win their favor. 

Blair kept boxing throughout his teenage years, while the darkness within him grew. He enjoyed the sport but hated life on the run. Outside of the gym, he struggled. But inside the ring, this mentality made him dangerous. He didn’t care what happened to him. “You can knock me down, knock me out,” he says. It didn’t matter: “You’ll have to kill me in that ring.” 

When he was 18, Cobbs had grown to around 130 or 140 pounds. He was tough to beat at that weight. So for one fight he was matched up against a guy in a heavier class, a Mexican fighter who weighed about 180 pounds. After winning nearly every recent match, now Blair was about to get his ass kicked, and to make matters worse, his dad was in the crowd to see it, one of the few times he attended. In the first round, Cobbs got hit hard, the punches too heavy to block. It was a small ring, and there was nowhere to run. He was getting destroyed. The bell rang for the second round. Things were just about to turn from bad to worse, and then Cobbs remembers thinking, “What would Mayweather do?”

At the time, Cobbs was watching all of the professional fights he could, and Floyd Mayweather Jr., the brash superstar with the flashy trunks and the nickname “Pretty Boy,” stood out. It was the effortlessness in Mayweather’s movements that really impressed the young boxer, the way he beat his opponent, the way he broke him down. “Pop, boop, pop, pop, boop. This motherfucker is making this shit look so easy,” Cobbs remembers. 

During the second round of his big fight, Cobbs recalled how Mayweather liked to use a shoulder roll to pick off shots and then get close, get inside and land short shots. By midway through the second round, he was doing it himself — shoulder roll, block, defend — and the tide was turning. That’s when his opponent reared back for a big right hand, a right hand “that had death written all over it.” If it landed it would have meant the end for Cobbs. But he saw it coming and pulled back and delivered his counterpunch, striking his opponent’s exposed chin, and boom, his adversary hit the canvas. The crowd started chanting, “Romero! Romero!” 

“I think that was the pivotal point where I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and I just never stopped,” Cobbs says. “That moment lasted forever. I never stopped no matter how bad it got in my life.”

Indeed, things would get worse for young Blair before they got better. 

Chapter 5: Down and Out

Blair and his sister returned to the States the same way they entered: on the sly. After spending roughly three years on the run, their father sent them to Edgewater, New Jersey, back to living with their stepmom. After an arduous bureaucratic process, they also regained their actual identities. 

The kids got out of Mexico just in time. Their father was kidnapped for ransom in late 2008. When the price was met and Eugene was released by his captors, he was almost immediately arrested. 

Blair Cobbs tells the story of his boxing exploits in a fever, but when it comes time to discuss his father, his cadence slows, and the discomfort he feels about those experiences is clear. 

Eugene Cobbs was taken into police custody at Valle Real, “a gated, exclusive community outside of Guadalajara,” according to Federal Marshal Terry Moore. After four years on the lam, Eugene was extradited to Houston and then transferred to Wheeling, West Virginia, where he pled guilty and was sentenced to more than 12 years — 151 months — for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and operating as an airman without a license. After his arrest, he was discovered to have at least five aliases, with matching IDs. 

Blair tried to push the news from his mind. He tried to keep boxing. From his stepmother’s house in New Jersey, he bounced around to different gyms in New York City. 

But it wasn’t long before the redheaded stepchild felt like he’d worn out his welcome in New Jersey. So he returned to the place of his birth, Philadelphia. While his sister stayed behind with their stepmom, Blair moved into the half-abandoned house on a corner lot that his grandmother had once lived in.

When asked about what he did for work in Philly, he answers, “Oh my God,” before contemplating and reeling off a résumé of dead-end jobs, the first one at Abercrombie & Fitch, which at $7.25 for a few hours a week turned out to be little more than enough to pay for the TransPass he needed to get there. 

Despite his vast life experience, none of what he had learned would help him deal with being alone in Philadelphia. He didn’t have much, but he was constantly getting robbed. “They would rob me going to work, or going to get a job. Because at that particular time getting a job was almost a full-time job, you know, going out applying at this place or that, I would be out all day if I needed to, for possibly one opportunity.”

His house didn’t contain much to begin with, but it was soon looted of nearly all of its possessions. Then the electricity was turned off. Followed by the heat and gas. Wintertime. Putting on every piece of clothing he owned just to survive the night. “I’ve been in plenty of those situations,” he pauses, thinking. “I was in one situation, where I was broke … I ran through everything I could find [of value]. I was panicking. Because I was really hungry. A couple days went by, and I hadn’t eaten. You know, I’m working and everything, but I haven’t eaten. I don’t have any food money. When I find a little gold ring. Possibly my grandfather’s engagement ring or something. It saved my life.” 

Cobbs, center, and Danny Garcia, right, during Garcia’s training camp in Philly.

He took the little gold ring to a Cash For Gold joint at a nearby shopping center. He only secured around $30. “But it was the most important 30 bucks in my life. It kept me alive,” he shakes his head, the memory sparking a wry smile. “And, uh, yeah, so that was pretty tough.”

He worked at Chili’s as, he says, “probably the worst waiter in the history of waiters.” And then there was Sky Chefs, preparing flight meals near the airport. “I ended up getting put in the frozen food section. I was in the refrigerator,” he says incredulously. “Freezing my ass off. And they would be pushing you, making you work hard as fuck. And you had to get there at 6 o’clock. I didn’t have a car. I would get up at like 2:30 in the morning to try and catch the first bus I could possibly get.” But in the end it never mattered, because after a series of connections, buses and trains to get there, he still arrived late nearly every day. He made it three weeks and one paycheck, and he was out. After that, he finally found the one job that would hold him until he turned pro, at a coffee shop. There, a bit of stability allowed him to get back to training. 

He trained at James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym, the former stomping grounds of Bernard Hopkins and “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon, in West Philadelphia. On June 28, 2013, at age 24, he made his professional debut, flooring Martique Holland in the first round in Ruffin, North Carolina. 

He quickly got off to a 4-0 record. But then the fights stopped coming. He got a lesson in the politics of boxing. The most important thing to know about the fight game is that “you can’t do it by yourself,” he says. “The biggest problem with boxing in America is that you need funding to get to the elite level. You can be very good and it almost doesn’t matter because you need funding. You need support. A lot of backing.” He could best all of the killers in Philly and it wouldn’t be enough if he didn’t have the right team behind him and a promoter to get him on the right cards and the right fights. 

Cobbs during the Golden Gloves tournament at Madison Square Garden, after he came back from Mexico.

Around the time of his first professional fight, his father was also making a change. On April 10, 2013, Eugene Cobbs decided that prison life no longer suited him. He’d been serving time at Fort Dix in New Jersey before being transferred to a minimum-security facility, FCI Morgantown, in West Virginia, after earning marks for good behavior. 

It was the morning hours, before 10 a.m., and Eugene Cobbs had been assigned cleaning duty in the parking lot. But at 4 p.m., when the prison guards did their count, they discovered that prisoner Cobbs was unaccounted for.

“He walked away from FCI Morgantown,” Marshal Moore says. “Due to the security of the facility, it’s fairly easy to walk away from. It’s not an over-the-wall escape or anything like that; there was no hidden tunnel. He was cleaning a parking lot and just walked away.” A fence surrounded the facility, but it was only three feet high. Eugene’s prison garb was discovered nearby. Moore was tasked with tracking him down. 

By the time of Eugene’s second manhunt, Moore, who had entered the Marshal Service immediately following graduation from Fairmont State University in West Virginia, had expeditiously ascended the ladder to supervisory deputy. He was 29 years old, and despite a right arm marked in ink, he looked every bit of 16, with short blond hair and a baby face. He openly shares a penchant for vacations to Disney World. His ambition and enthusiasm for the job are evident, and they extended to the pursuit of Eugene Cobbs.

Moore says that at the time he’d seen his share of escapes. Nine out of 10 times, the guy would scramble, nervously, maybe call a girlfriend to rendezvous at the nearest hotel, or meet up with his drug dealer. “We get them relatively quickly,” and they usually don’t make it far, he says. But when Moore answered the phone this time and heard the name Eugene Cobbs, he stood on alert. He remembered the first chase. “I knew it would be a good hunt,” Moore says. “I was like, this is going to be something.” Not easy for sure, Moore knew, recounting that Eugene had previously eluded justice for four years. 

Moore explains that after escaping, Eugene walked to a nearby garage, Dinsmore Tire & Auto, where he called a cab. The driver took him to a Kroger grocery store in nearby Sabraton, West Virginia, where he waited while the escapee went inside and received a Western Union money order. The cabbie then drove Eugene an hour and a half to Pittsburgh and dropped him at a Greyhound station. 

“We had aired Mr. Cobbs’s picture on the news to see if anybody had seen him. And I got a call from a local cab company who advised that they had picked up Mr. Cobbs on April 10,” Moore recounts. “We immediately obtained warrants for Mr. Cobbs.”

A second international manhunt was now taking place for Blair’s father: “The Coke-Plane Fugitive,” as one newspaper dubbed him. Moore says Eugene Cobbs was a clever and experienced criminal, who “knew how to avoid detection.” Moore believed that he would follow a similar game plan as he had the last time. “After he made it onto that bus,” Moore says he knew: “He’s making his move. He’s going to Mexico.”

Moore started interviewing family members and acquaintances, and nobody knew a thing. “So we’re kind of stale on his trail at that time, and that’s when I really start to dig into the escape investigation.” Moore went to the tire shop, watched a surveillance video of the fugitive getting into the cab, then another of him entering the Western Union. Through subpoena requests, the investigative team got information from Western Union that indicated that Blair’s stepmother was the one who had wired Eugene the money. She was eventually arrested for assisting in the escape.

But the account of how Moore eventually got his man is much less cinematic. The marshal was seated at his desk, the phone rang, and he was given an anonymous tip. Simple as that. “In this case,” Moore says, “the tip was the golden ticket” that allowed him and coordinating authorities to ascertain Eugene’s exact location. On June 23, 2014, Mexican law enforcement arrested Eugene Cobbs in Tepatitlán. He did not put up a fight, although he did present false identification documents. But Moore saw the photos from the arrest scene and was given a description of the suspect’s tattoos. “I knew at that point, 100 percent, it was Cobbs,” he says. “It was a good grab.” 

Eugene was extradited from Mexico that very day and escorted to Los Angeles, where he was taken into custody by deputy marshals, then transported, once more, to West Virginia. 

Moore describes Eugene as a “gentle” guy, who never showed a penchant for violence; each time he was arrested, he surrendered peacefully. “He never tried to be that hardened criminal that gives you problems.” (Eugene Cobbs declined requests to be interviewed for this article.)

Back in Philadelphia, by the time Blair found out his dad had escaped, Eugene was soon back in custody. “It was very short-lived,” Blair says. 

On August 11, 2014, Eugene Cobbs pled guilty to the escape and was sentenced to 14 months, to be served consecutive to his prior sentence. 

Meanwhile, Blair’s boxing career was stuck in neutral, and he remained at his 4-0 mark, with no fights on the horizon. He wasn’t going anywhere if a promoter didn’t sign him. It stung even worse that nearly all of his rivals and competitors were getting inked to deals, while he had to “bleed for everything,” he says. Here he was, in his peak fighting years, 23 years old, and he couldn’t even get a fight. 

It was at that point that he decided to take a gamble on a flight to Las Vegas to try to get noticed, to try to get backing. It was a risky proposition. He had a steady job and a girlfriend, Melissa. And to top it off, he and Melissa had recently welcomed a son of their own into the world. He made the trip anyway.

Once in Vegas he was able to get a few sparring sessions in front of some prominent eyes. But in the end, his manager at the time made a mess of things, Cobbs says. 

The trip was an abject failure. 

To make matters worse, when he got back to Philly, he’d lost his job at the coffee shop. He soon lost his apartment. “Now I’m homeless,” he says. “And I don’t even care, not about boxing, like I’m finished with life.” 

His girlfriend and son stayed with one of her acquaintances, but Blair, unable to support himself, let alone a family, bounced around. 

Sometimes he slept in his car. 

Other times it was abandoned buildings. 

Chapter 6: Blair "The Flair"

Things in Philly remained bleak. So futile that Blair remembers jokingly thinking, “I wish I could sell drugs,” he laughs, “but I couldn’t sell drugs. I didn’t have any fucking friends.”

It took him nearly a year to get back on his feet, both mentally and spiritually. To get up and take another shot. 

“I’m in this continuous state of being reborn. Constantly moving from one place to the next. But dying too. Going through the worst experience I could possibly go through and surviving that to move on, to another level. But did I really survive or did a piece of me just die in order to live on?” he ponders. “That’s a question I ask myself. There was a lot going on from a mental perspective.” 

Cobbs after defending his NABF Welterweight title at the Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, California, 2019.

Finally, Cobbs caught a break. He hooked up with Kenny Mason, a trainer who had worked with recent middleweight world champion Julian Williams. Cobbs began to find a rhythm with Mason. Mason also gave him a place to crash. Sort of. “I was living in Kenny’s closet,” he says. (It was literally a walk-in closet.) But it was in that closet that Cobbs found God. “I went through an experience of growth,” he says. “Learning how to think, how to manifest my dreams into reality.” He prayed and meditated. He put up a vision board. It wasn’t a great situation, but he says it’s what he needed. And it wasn’t all bad, if not for the dog he shared the closet with. “The dog wanted to evict me.”

He found a church, Casa de Gloria. And he got back to the gym. It was there, at Joe Hand’s Gym, that he met Bernard Hopkins, a boxing legend and one of the most successful fighters in history. Hopkins offered him some desperately needed encouragement, and Cobbs picked up his training even more. He started training other boxers as well, to earn some dough. 

He decided to give Vegas another shot. He couldn’t stay in Philly any longer. “Let’s just go,” he told his girlfriend. Through it all, he says Melissa stuck with him. “I think it’s just that we didn’t have anybody else,” he marvels. “We didn’t have anything else but each other.”

“We took those couple bucks I had from training and just took off,” Cobbs remembers. “We only stopped for gas, too afraid [the car would break down] — we gassed it while the car was still running, because I’ll be damned if we didn’t make it.”

There was no alternative. Cobbs saw only two options if he remained in the city: Death or jail. 

“As we left Philadelphia you could feel the weight being lifted. As the miles started passing, the freer we started to feel. We were as happy as hell. It didn’t matter what happened in Vegas. It was better than being there.”

The car was packed: father, mother, son. Everything they had.

“Straight to Vegas. Two days.”

Cobbs with Oscar de la Hoya after his victory over Carlos Ortiz Cervantes at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas.

Once in Vegas, Cobbs and his family were still homeless. They lived out of their car north of Vegas at a pit stop frequented by truckers. Sometimes they pitched a pop-up tent. It didn’t matter. He calls it one of the most peaceful times of his life. “We were happy there,” he says. “No responsibilities or obligations. It was just us living, day to day. And being appreciative of each moment that passed. Because each moment was a better moment.”

After all that he’d been through, somehow Cobbs now looked at the world with optimism. In Mexico he had felt low and therefore he was low. He’d hit rock bottom in Philadelphia. Now his new attitude led him out of the hole. He could feel the universe conspiring for his success. 

He hooked up with a distant relative who put him and his family up for a few weeks. He and Melissa got jobs, his at the Cromwell Hotel. Soon enough, they had a place of their own. And after his cousin put in a word with an ex-boxer, the former super-bantamweight titlist Bones Adams, Cobbs had himself a trainer. Adams had a gym behind his house in Las Vegas, right down the street from Cobbs’s new place. Just like the rhythm in the ring — pop, pop, pop — all of the things he needed in his life started to click into place. Next, he hooked up with a manager, Greg Hannley. Hannley staked him, with around two grand a month, so that Cobbs could train full time. 

Media workout at the Nevada Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, for Cobbs’ upcoming fight in Anaheim, 2020.

Adams says that right from the start he saw the potential. “Phenomenal skills, strong, fast, and athletic as can be. He does things most people can’t.” Adams does admit, however, that at the time, “He was very wild … out of control, crazy [in the ring].” 

His first fight in three years was on May 18, 2017, in Tijuana, where he scored a second-round technical knockout. He was finally 5-0. Pop, pop, pop. By year’s end, he’d be 7-0. In 2018 he was named the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame prospect of the year. 

In 2019 he was signed by Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions and won the North American Boxing Federation welterweight title (an achievement, but not the heralded World Boxing Council or World Boxing Association titles he and other boxers are mainly chasing). Golden Boy Promotions touts his three 2019 fights as “the most prominent fights of the year in boxing.” Ringtv.com (“The Bible of Boxing”) said of his November 2019 win over Carlos Ortiz: “The Blair Cobbs show continues to be a thrill a minute,” while noting that his lively post-fight interview “was just as entertaining as his fight.” 

In the summer of 2019, Blair’s father was released early from Fort Dix. Eugene is now living with Blair and his family in Vegas, and just like his son, the father is looking for a fresh start. 

Blair, the rich kid from Beverly Hills, the American in Mexico, the poor kid in Philly, they’re all part of him now. But he has evolved. He’s even earned himself a new moniker: He’s now Blair “The Flair” Cobbs, a nickname given to him by an onlooker during one of his sparring sessions. But Blair has taken the handle and run with it.

What does “The Flair” mean? “It encapsulates everything that everyone would ever want to be,” Cobbs says. “People want to be a rock star. People want to have charisma. They want to be great, greater than they are. They want to believe, to have the passion and drive that they can do anything. … Someone who’s genuinely one of a kind. That’s what ‘The Flair’ is.”

Cobbs after the press confefrence for his fight against Samuel Kotey Neequaye in Anaheim, February 14, 2020. Walking next to him is sports reporter Elie Seckbach.

Fight insiders still describe Blair Cobbs, a southpaw, as a wild man in the ring, and spectators love the passion he brings. He’s brash and has a swagger — and to top it off, when he enters the ring he even lets out a “Woo!” in the style of legendary pro wrestling star Ric Flair. 

But he’s also quick to point out: “[It’s] ‘The Flair’ who has that confidence. Blair Cobbs doesn’t.”

“That’s a real person within me,” he says. “Living through all kinds of crazy shit, I kept dying and reinventing myself. I kind of just developed these multiple character personalities and [The Flair] just comes out whenever the cameras are on me.” 

Some people will say that, at 30, he’s too old to be a prospect. But Cobbs will tell you the time off just means he’s fresh. That he hasn’t taken the punches, and that his boxing age is young. 

He still likes to put on a show, but Adams, who recently stepped aside as Cobbs’s head trainer, says he’s done a good job of cleaning up the recklessness in the ring. And his biggest asset is the most important: “He doesn’t want to lose,” Adams says. “He has the will to win.”

On Valentine’s Day, 2020, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, “The Flair” scored a split decision victory over Samuel Kotey, who had sported an impressive 23-2 record going into the bout. He hopes it’s the stepping-stone he needs for a title shot later this year.

Blair Cobbs remains undefeated. And he believes that his best chapter is yet to be written.

Cobbs and his team walking to his locker room before his fight at the Anaheim Honda Center on February 14, 2020.

Lifelong Quests! Lawsuits! Feuds! A Super-Serious Story About Cereal.

The world’s most obsessive breakfast-food fans demonstrate just how far humans will go for the sweet taste of nostalgia.

Lifelong Quests! Lawsuits! Feuds! A Super-Serious Story About Cereal.

Whenever Gabe Fonseca invites someone over to his Los Angeles apartment for the first time, he worries what they’ll think of his cereal box collection. He has over 200 on display in one small room, affixed by magnets to sheet metal on the wall. “It’s admittedly weird,” says Fonseca, a 39-year-old TV writer who has worked on shows like Jessica Jones and Private Practice. He cringes imagining negative reactions to the collection: “They’re gonna be like, ‘This dude is weird.’” But despite Fonseca’s anxiety, most visitors dive right into the nostalgia. “People go in and they [say], ‘Oh, you collect cereal boxes?’ And then they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I remember that one,’ or ‘Do you have that one?’”

Fonseca’s collection spans the past four decades of cereal, showcasing the creativity of graphic design and cereal engineering, while telling a history of American popular culture. Many are named for hit TV shows, music or films of the day. There’s a box of Urkel-Os next to Strawberry Shortcake. A New Kids on the Block cereal box floats atop Donkey Kong Junior cereal and Jurassic Park Crunch: The Lost World. The classics are here too: Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch and more.

Gabe Fonseca arranges some of the 200 cereal boxes, which are affixed by magnets to sheet metal and on display in his Los Angeles apartment.

Fonseca began collecting cereal boxes about 10 years ago, amassing hundreds of them, which were soon piling up inside his home. “My wife was like, ‘This is ridiculous. You need to open these and flatten them and store them somewhere else,’” he recalls. She also suggested that he start a YouTube channel, as a way to preserve and document boxes for posterity before throwing them out.

So in 2014, Fonseca launched Cereal Time TV. In videos posted every Saturday morning (a nod to the iconic TV time slot when kids watched cartoons while eating sugary cereals), Fonseca talks and reviews cereal. He covers classics and new ones, as well as diving deep into the breakfast food’s history. An episode about Hostess Donettes cereal, for example, covered donut-shaped cereals of the past (Fonseca prefers powdered Donutz cereal from the late 1980s). With 250-plus episodes, Cereal Time TV has amassed more than 8 million views.

Fonseca’s Cereal Time TV episode on Hostess Donettes and Honey Bun cereal, 2018.

Fonseca is a part of a (mostly male) online community that obsesses over cereal. They dissect the taste of the newest Cap’n Crunch variety with the precision of Ruth Reichl rating a gourmet meal, and analyze the box of a classic movie-tie-in cereal with the enthusiasm of a highbrow art critic.

Dan Goubert, 23, another cereal enthusiast, says his fixation began when he was young, but it has always been about more than just the cereal. One day when Goubert was about 7 years old, he bounded down his family’s basement stairs, looking for a computer game to play. Among the games in his parents’ collection, he discovered the curiously named Chex Quest, which came free in Chex boxes in the late 1990s. A kid-friendly twist on the classic first-person shooter Doom, the game’s main character wore armor made of Chex cereal. His arms and legs poked out of the rice squares, and he defeated his enemies by teleporting them back to their home planets (instead of killing them).

“It’s just a really good example of how cereal can grow into something more,” says Goubert. “I was always infatuated with it, and I still am.”

Although Goubert wasn’t born until the late 1990s, he credits “the coolness of ’90s retro commercials” with fueling the creation of his blog Cerealously.net, where he reviews cereals and Pop-Tarts, as well as reports on the latest cereal news. More recently Goubert has started co-hosting The Empty Bowl, a “meditative podcast on cereal.” Goubert says the ritual of eating a bowl of cereal — “the scientific balance [of] the milk in the cereal consistency, and the clanking of the spoon on the bowl” — can be an exercise in thinking deeply, even for non-cereal-obsessives. The Empty Bowl has a devoted following, including Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who praised the podcast on Twitter, while the Cerealously blog has garnered mentions in Forbes and amassed more than 17,000 followers on Instagram.

Like Goubert, Thomas Hicks, a 30-year-old actor and model, says he embraced a love of cereal at a young age and has been obsessed with it his whole life. He says he used to stash boxes of Froot Loops and Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries in his closet to keep his siblings from eating them. He recalls waking up in the middle of the night, too excited about his morning bowl of cereal to sleep. Hicks’s YouTube channel, Cereal Snob, has over 3,000 subscribers, and the most popular video has more than 85,000 views. His approach is different than Goubert’s — he doesn’t focus on packaging, branding or underlying philosophical implications – he critiques the cereal itself. And while Fonseca basically likes every cereal he reviews, Hicks is more critical. He believes that the perfect cereal has yet to be created.

Thomas Hicks showing off his Froot Loops socks in front of the cereal aisle at the local supermarket in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Thomas Hicks)

Even as he lists his favorites, Hicks can’t help noting their flaws. Crunch Berries falls short because “it hurts you … it’s the shape of the pieces, and they’re coarser around the edges.” Golden Grahams and Fruity Pebbles “get soggy too fast.” And Lucky Charms “wouldn’t be edible without marshmallows.”

“I just think really highly [of cereals]. And most of them don’t stack up,” says Hicks. While his reviews can be harsh, Hicks claims they come from a place of love. “When I see a new cereal, I want it to be better than the ones I’ve had before,” he says. “It doesn’t always happen.”

Despite their different approaches, all three men exude an infectious joy for their favorite breakfast food — and they have formed connections over this shared bond. When Goubert gets the scoop on a new cereal, he’ll text Fonseca, who will text Hicks. Fonseca hopes one day he’ll be able to cast Hicks in a TV series (and yes, he does try to craft cereal scenes in the shows he currently writes for).

“There didn’t feel like there was ever any, any competition,” between the three of them, Fonseca says. “We all kind of have the same love of cereal.”

But the world of cereal connoisseurs hasn’t always been so congenial.

Throughout cereal’s long life, there have been two constants: change and conflict. Invented in 1863 by James Caleb Jackson, an enterprising doctor, cereal was originally a health food. Jackson’s wheat flour–based Granula was a far cry from today’s sugar-laden favorites. It was bland, boring and so difficult to chew that you had to soak it in milk overnight to make it edible.

It took another doctor to turn cereal into an iconic mass-produced food: John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg’s first cereal was a Granula knockoff — it even had the same name. Jackson sued, and Kellogg changed his to “Granola.” But it wasn’t until Kellogg and his younger brother Will developed an easily digestible, bland breakfast food called Corn Flakes that they really put cereal on the map. Dr. Kellogg championed bland foods, at least in part because he thought a simple diet could help prevent masturbation. So when Will added sugar to Corn Flakes and began selling his sweeter version to the public in 1906, it kicked off a decades-long feud filled with lawsuits, accusations of stolen recipes, and public acrimony that divided the Kellogg family.

An advertisement for Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes featuring “The Sweetheart of the Corn,” circa 1910. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Still, supersweet cereals didn’t become especially popular until Post debuted its sugar-coated puffed rice cereal, aptly named Sugar Crisp, in 1949. The ensuing sugar cereal craze of the 1950s saw the introduction of Sugar Krinkles and Sugar Smiles, as well as now-iconic cereals like Sugar Corn Pops, Sugar Frosted Flakes and Sugar Smacks (all have since dropped “sugar” from their names).

The introduction of television into the American home brought commercials with animated cereal mascots. The Trix Rabbit debuted in 1959, followed soon after by Cap’n Crunch with its naval-captain mascot Horatio M. Crunch, and Lucky Charms with the ginger-haired Lucky the Leprechaun. Toys and prizes inside cereal boxes, such as baking soda–powered atomic submarines and Star Trek badges, also became more prevalent around this time (although Will Kellogg is credited with inventing the concept back in 1909).

A couple of decades later, when baby boomers felt the pull of nostalgia and birthed the collectors-market boom for comic books and toys from their childhoods, some craved the ephemera of classic cereals, and the rarity of 1950s and ’60s boxes made them valuable collectors items.

According to Dan Goodsell, founder of Welcome (an online chronicle of the history of cereal) and co-author of the book Krazy Kids’ Food!, the heyday of the cereal-collecting market was in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Goodsell says his own cereal lust began young. He’d tag along with his mom to get groceries, so that he could select that week’s buy. “I always had a sort of collector nature, even as a kid going to the grocery store. I always looked at it as an adventure,” he says. “I have a very intense collector nature in my DNA.”

As an adult, Goodsell began searching for cereal boxes from his childhood, the ones he remembered from Saturday morning commercials in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He considers original cereal collectors like himself to be “next-level collectors,” a different breed than those that were riffling through bins at flea markets for Incredible Hulk comics or trading with other collectors for a Man from U.N.C.L.E. gun still in the box. Instead, he was on the hunt for the absurdly hard to find.

“A lot of stuff that you’re looking for, you will only get one shot during your lifetime to buy,” Goodsell says. “If you want a Fruity Freakies box” — a childhood favorite of his introduced in 1975 — “there’s three of them out there probably … so if you want to get one of those, you’re gonna have to pry it out of the hands of one of those three people, and good luck with that.”

This was the pre-internet era, when enthusiasts would eagerly anticipate the arrival of Toy Shop, the toy collector’s bible. The biweekly magazine was one of the few ways to get information on the pricing and availability of everything from Barbies to Hot Wheels, and it also ran sales listings and wanted ads. There were ads for subscription newsletters and zines too — the analog version of eBay crossed with a blog. It wasn’t long before Toy Shop began listing all of the available vintage cereal boxes on the market.

Aside from Goodsell, there are two other big names from that first generation of serious cereal collectors: Duane Dimock and Scott Bruce. And there was no love lost between Dimock and Bruce. “Scott and Duane never got along with each other,” says Goodsell. “[They] feuded in the day.”

Vintage cereal boxes, part of Fonseca’s collection.

Dimock, now 62, claims that he was the first person to collect cereal boxes as a category. “There were a few people collecting cereal boxes,” he explains, “but … they were collecting Batman cereal to complete their Batman collection.”

He started collecting in 1987, going to swap meets in the L.A. area to buy cereal boxes, mostly ones from the 1960s like Quisp and Quake. It wasn’t long before he’d amassed hundreds of boxes and was known as the collector. Today, Dimock’s most prized possessions include some of the earliest U.S. cereal boxes, including an early Kellogg’s cereal and Jackson’s Granula from 1869.

“Duane probably was the absolute original guy,” says Goodsell. Bruce (who declined to comment for this article), meanwhile, had been a driving force behind the lunch box collectors market. He’d started a zine called Hot Boxing, which helped build interest in vintage Barbie and Yogi Bear lunch boxes — and, depending on who you talk to, drove up the prices. In January of 1990, he wanted to do the same for old boxes of Sugar Pops and Frosted Flakes. That’s when he sent a letter to Dimock, asking for his opinion on the best boxes to feature in his new zine, Flake. He signed the letter “Mr. Cereal Box.”

Dimock was incensed. He says Bruce had called him a few months earlier, asking about the state of the cereal box market and discussing their shared interest in collecting. “All during the conversation, he never mentioned he was going to do a fanzine,” Dimock says. “He just wanted to buy because he liked cereal boxes.” Dimock was outraged that now Bruce was trying to turn his passion into a business opportunity, and in the process would likely drive up prices.

Dimock never replied to Bruce’s letter. Instead, he started plotting. “I suggested to a cereal collector friend, [that] we make fun of this guy and expose what he clearly was trying to hide,” says Dimock. So, he got to work on Snot Boxing, a parody of Scott’s lunch box zine, and sketched out the cover for a parody of Flake, which he called FAKE.

Cover of the zine “Fake,” a parody of “Flake,” sketched by Duane Dimock. (Photo courtesy Duane Dimock)

Flake premiered in February, and just a few months later Dimock’s ad for Snot Boxing ran in Toy Shop. “Steve Bob’s Snot Boxing Fanzine,” it read, with this description: “a parody (or real) look at a lunch box fanzine.” There was also a line teasing the release of FAKE. 

Not long afterward, Dimock received a letter from Bruce, written on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes stationery. “After all parody is the sincerest form of flattery,” it read. “Send me a copy of both ‘Snot Boxing’ (I love it) and ‘FAKE.’” The letter ended with “P.S. You’re a sub-genius.”

The feud was on.

Dimock did send a copy of Snot Boxing to Bruce, and soon after, he got a phone call from a lawyer named Beverly Kogut — who he later learned was Scott Bruce’s wife. She claimed that the zine constituted “unlawful defamation” and demanded he cease publishing it and send an apology to everyone who had subscribed. She threatened him with a lawsuit and said that he would have his “lunchbox collection taken away.” Duane says he laughed. “You mean my cereal box collection?” he replied.

Kogut followed up with a letter threatening litigation and warning Dimock not to bring any of his parody zines to an upcoming collectibles show in Dallas. She included a draft of an apology for Dimock to send to his subscribers, for “any injury to the good reputations and good names of Scott Bruce, his wife, and any of Scott Bruce’s publications.”

Around this time, another of Dimock’s ads for FAKE appeared in Toy Shop. By coincidence, it was just below an ad for Bruce’s Flake. Kogut faxed a letter to Toy Shop demanding that they “screen all ads in the lunch box and cereal sections … for statements or pictures which defame or advertise publications which defame Mr. Bruce, his wife, or his lunch box and cereal box businesses.”

In July of 1990, Dimock went to the collectibles show in Dallas. He’d paid for a table and arrived with not only copies and covers of his Bruce-mocking zines but also a flyer with a caricature of Scott Bruce on it. The cartoon Bruce, identified as “Steve ‘Pailhead’ Bob™,” had red beady eyes, spiky hair and a “kick me” sign affixed to his shirt.

As he handed out his flyers, Dimock wondered how Bruce would react. Would he yell at him? Hit him? He soon found out. As Dimock walked back to his table, he saw Bruce there examining his stuff. “I come up to his side and said, ‘Scott … my pal,’” Dimock recalls. “I was impressed, he did the smartest thing he could had done; he meekly walked away … saying nothing.”

It’s unclear if Bruce actually had a hand in pumping up the prices of vintage cereal boxes by publishing Flake. Some sought-after boxes were still hovering in the usual price range (about $200) after Bruce came on the scene, but others had started to sell for much more. In one issue of Flake, Bruce claimed that a 1983 box of Sugar Smacks had sold for $5,000.

Bruce and his wife never did sue Dimock, who never actually published the first issue of FAKE, despite having made a satirical cover with Bruce’s face on a box of “Steve Bob’s Self-Butter Crunch.” Bruce continued to publish Flake for at least three more years. Both he and Dimock continued to collect cereal boxes. Dimock refused to sell any of his boxes to Bruce, and almost 30 years later, there’s still animosity in Dimock’s voice when he talks about Bruce.

The intensity of the Dimock-Bruce feud may seem odd to outsiders, but it begins to make sense when you consider how much of this subculture is built around nostalgia. Cereal can be a connection to the past. Eating a bowl of a decades-old classic, like Lucky Charms or Cinnamon Toast Crunch, can be a Proustian experience, with one bite of a sugary square mixed with milk bringing back a rush of happy childhood emotions.

“Taste and smell are really strong memory inducers,” Fonseca says. “When eating a bowl of Fruity Pebbles or eating a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, you can really be transported back to that time when you’re a kid … a simpler time when … we didn’t have any responsibilities.” And while most people are satisfied with the euphoria of simply tasting a cereal from their childhood, others want more. “There are the crazy people like me,” explains Goodsell, “who get so buried in nostalgia, they want to own stuff and have it in their house.” Or publish fanzines, create websites and blogs, make YouTube videos and podcasts … even lash out at someone they see as trying to muscle in on and profit from their passion.

Some of Fonseca’s cereal box collection, flattened to conserve space.

Nostalgic obsession can take on many forms. For Fonseca, the most extreme form of his obsession was the hunt for a lost cereal: Buñuelitos. Initially released by General Mills in U.S. Spanish-language markets, it was a honey and cinnamon flavored corn puff cereal. Fonseca loved it, but he hadn’t been able to find a box for more than two decades. Buñuelitos became his white whale.

Then, a few years ago, he was visiting a friend in Minnesota. It was the closest he’d ever been to the suburban Minneapolis headquarters of General Mills. The company follows Fonseca’s YouTube channel, Cereal Time TV, and sends him boxes from time to time, so he reached out and was invited to the corporate archives. Fonseca was like a kid in a candy store. “Oh, my God, this is amazing,” he enthused, as archivists showed him cereal memorabilia they thought he would like. There were dozens of old boxes, classic cereal prizes, and even original animation cells from a few commercials.

Before Fonseca left, they gave him something to take home: a small snack pack of his beloved Buñuelitos.

But cereal companies aren’t just using nostalgia to build bridges with online cereal influencers. It’s become big business. Like TV and film studios, the cereal world constantly revives and reboots hits from the 1980s and ’90s, from Garbage Pail Kids Cereal (with marshmallow “barf bites”) to the recent relaunches of Oreo O’s and Pop-Tarts cereal.

That pull of the past can also create problems, especially when it bumps up against the push toward the future. Cereal is always changing, like when General Mills removed the high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colors from Trix in 2016. Red 40, Blue 1 and Yellow 6 were replaced by colors derived from purple carrots, radishes and turmeric. Fonseca thought it was a bad move. “They looked really pale and bland,” he says. “I think that was a little off-putting to people who expect Trix to be these brightly colored … shapes and pieces.”

Fonseca, left, and Hicks at Gizmo’s Cereal Bar in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Thomas Hicks)

Goubert agreed. “Eating muted, artificial color-free Trix makes my inner flame of childhood glow a little dimmer,” he wrote on Cerealously.

Trix fans revolted, with some saying it was now basically “a salad.”

Hicks wasn’t surprised by the reaction. “I fully support people who are against artificial flavors, but I don’t think you should do it with cereal,” he explains. “Lots of my fans … want to have the cereal they ate as kids.”

In the end, General Mills kept the new, healthier Trix, but also released a “classic” version to appease those clamoring for them to bring back the artificial flavor and coloring.

Nostalgia drives people’s cereal love, as they aim to return to the “moments of happiness” and innocence of their childhood. What drew most enthusiasts to cereal in the first place was the novelty: the many variations of Cheerios, from Honey Nut to Apple Cinnamon; the inventive cereal shapes, from waffles to four-leaf clovers, cinnamon buns to SpongeBob. The surprise within the box: Which Jungle Book figurine or baking soda–powered submarine would they find?

Fonseca, Goubert and Hicks are in favor of innovation and experimentation, found in cereals like Post’s Sour Patch Kids or Honey Bunches of Oats: Maple Bacon Donuts flavor. Actually, they think the cereal companies haven’t gone far enough. Goubert wants them to explore more nuances within the taste palate. “There’s all kinds of layers to donut cereals,” he says. “There could be a sour-cream donut cereal, or a jelly-filled donut cereal.” Fonseca thinks the “miniature breakfast food” genre, which has seen its share of toasts, waffles and donuts, is tragically lacking a mini-pancake-shaped cereal. Hicks would like to see a beignet cereal, as well as attempts to harness savory flavors, like a cheesy mashed potato or pot roast cereal — though he admits those “would take cereal scientists a lot of work.”

Fonseca recording and editing one of his videos for his YouTube channel.

Despite their wish lists, today’s cereal connoisseurs are noticeably positive. There are no heated disagreements or feuds. “Maybe it’s from the marketing we grew up with back in the day,” Goubert jokes. “All these mascots and the fun commercials.” In fact, the biggest conflict within the group is Fonseca and Goubert’s long-running debate about whether Krave is a good cereal. Fonseca considers it a knockoff of the mid-’90s cereal Hidden Treasures, which he describes lovingly as “golden pillows that were filled with fruity … frosting.” It has, to his mind, set a benchmark that no other pillowed cereal — including Krave — has lived up to.

“It might be like a cilantro-style thing,” Goubert says, “where some people are just born with a genetic disposition to think [Krave] tastes like dog food.” His own love of Krave, as he writes on Cerealously, comes from “the unique blend of multigrain and graham flavor in every biscuit: it’s like someone melted Teddy Grahams, graham crackers, Nilla Wafers, and Life Cereal into a single bowl, molded the golden paste into a rounded rectangle, and lovingly slathered a chocolate sliver inside.”

While their blogs and web videos follow in the footsteps of their predecessors’ newsletters and zines, today’s cereal obsessives seem both genial and self-aware.

Fonseca in front of his cereal box collection wall at his apartment in Los Angeles.

And their hobby has even gone academic. Dimock now gives lectures on the history of cereal. One product he talks about is Korn-Kinks, from 1890. It was one of the first cereals with a mascot: Kornelia Kinks, a racist caricature of an African-American girl. He cites it as evidence of the way cereal from each era is reflective of the larger American culture at that time, for better or (often) for worse. And in contrast to that particularly ugly example, cereal boxes can show the country’s progress too. A few decades after Korn-Kinks, in 1936, a sprinting Jesse Owens became the first black athlete to have his image emblazoned across the Wheaties box, and today the beaming face of tennis superstar Serena Williams adorns the iconic orange box.

But despite this focus on serious historical issues, even Dimock seems to have mellowed a bit. A few weeks after being interviewed for this story, he sent the writer an email. “Isn’t it funny, how insignificant most everything really is,” he wrote. “I will be interested in you seeing things I can’t see. Good or bad.”

It seems this community of collectors has grown and changed over time … just like cereal.