Renegades

The Man Who Got America High

He chartered the Rolling Stones while smuggling Pablo Escobar’s drugs on the side. After disappearing for decades, Alfred Dellentash finally shares his unbelievable life story.

It is seven o’clock on a humid Los Angeles evening, and business is winding down at a suburban car showroom. I walk past a team of guys polishing Japanese hybrids with bright white rags, past the twenty-five-cent gumball machines and into the air-conditioned office. An attorney has arranged this meeting with one of America’s most mysterious men — who has reportedly had surgery to change his identity — at his place of work.

His name is Alfred Dellentash. When I first punched his name into Google, six months ago, the results were simply baffling. First, there is an archived People magazine article from 1978, titled: ‘TOURING ROCK STARS GO TO AL DELLENTASH WHEN THEY REALLY WANT TO GET HIGH.’ The headline is a clever joke, you see, because the story is about his multi-million-dollar private jet-leasing business, which he built in his twenties: “Among the acts that have chartered Dellentash’s three Convairs, two helicopters and a Boeing 707 are the Rolling Stones, KISS and the Grateful Dead.”

The next hit told me Dellentash was moonlighting as a wingman for two of history’s most deadly criminal organizations, flying Pablo Escobar’s drugs from Colombia to the Gambino crime family in New York. His mile-high empire was a front for the most rock ’n’ roll drug smuggling ring in history. Ironically, Dellentash was secretly getting the whole of America high — hiding in plain sight as a chartered plane provider, and later, a music manager for 1980s acts including Meat Loaf and the Bay City Rollers.

I requested to speak to Dellentash through Jack Dampf, the Baton Rouge attorney who represented him during his 1984 trial in which Dellentash was charged with criminal conspiracy to distribute drugs. As soon as I mentioned the name “Dellentash,” Dampf broke into laughter and told me: “Boy, this is one hell of a story.”

Online speculators have tried to link Dellentash’s name to the famous D.B. Cooper hijacking in 1971 (he was too young and short to have been Cooper), the C.I.A.’s covert operations in South America, and even the 9/11 terror attacks in New York — tinfoil-hat theorists discovered that Dellentash’s father was once a contractor on the World Trade Center. But the truth is not out there.

Here in the car showroom, he is known to colleagues as “Dell.” While I wait, one of them, Susan, tells me her favorite Dell story: She was dealing with an angry customer who was rejected for poor credit. In a rage the thug rose to strike her, but Dellentash came from nowhere and subdued him with an expert arm twist.

And suddenly he is ready to see me.

Today, Alfred Dellentash, sixty-six, is mustachioed and bespectacled, wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt. If there has been any surgery, I cannot see it. The expensive Italian shoes are the only glimpse of his past, when he infuriated the fusty airline industry by staffing his jet planes with Playboy models. According to feverish reports online, back then he was the equivalent of Richard Branson and Tony “Scarface” Montana.

In an office full of salesman trophies, I politely request his first extended interview since being released from his twenty-five-year jail sentence, of which he served just a fifth. I offer the chance to tell how it really happened, for the first time. But Dellentash explains that his head is compartmentalized — he keeps his past locked in a shadowy corner of his mind. This showroom, he says with a wave of his hand, was the choice he made long ago: to leave his past behind and stop running, to enter civilian life and try to win back the only woman who could keep up with him at full flight. He turns down my request.

Weeks later I am surprised when my telephone rings, and a thick New York accent asks:

“Where do you want to start?”

* * *

Alfred Dellentash Jr. was born on August 19, 1948, in New Rochelle, New York. His father was an Italian-American building contractor with high-rise goals, and his pianist mother was the head of the local Republican Party. Alfred sang in the church choir but regularly stole the “Body of Christ” wine. He spent his evenings painting model B52 and B17 bombers at home and wanted to be a rock star or a jet pilot, depending on what day you asked.

Dellentash became a frequent truant and a straight-D student by his own admission, preferring hustling in local pool halls, “moving swag” and loan-sharking. He played in local bars with his band instead of studying. At age sixteen, Dellentash obtained his pilot’s license. “I spent every dollar I had buying flying time,” he says. “I thought about becoming an airline pilot, but I figured I only wanted to fly where I wanted to go.” He flunked high school but excelled at aviation school. While his peers raced fast cars, he soared high above them in planes, flying loop-de-loops.

Dellentash grew up in the suburbs of New York and sang in a church choir. (Photos courtesy of Alfred Dellentash Jr.)
Dellentash grew up in the suburbs of New York and sang in a church choir. (Photos courtesy Alfred Dellentash Jr.)

One afternoon while in Florida he borrowed a twin-engine plane to take a girl on a date, landing the aircraft on a strip of sand just in time for the sunset. “It was completely illegal,” he says, “but she was very impressed.” This was “Mad Men”-era America, where the pursuit of material possessions and individual happiness reigned free.

“My father arranged for me to work for a construction firm, where I joined the union and sat on a crane doing nothing. I just felt trapped in his world,” says Dellentash. “My life was all mapped out for me.” In 1971, Dellentash married his high school girlfriend, and they had two children. Any dreams of becoming a pilot or rock star faded like jet plane contrails in the sky as he settled down in a Montvale, New Jersey, house he couldn’t afford. “It tore me apart,” he says. “I had babies at home to look after and that became the priority.”

But domestic life could not ground him for long, and he yearned to escape the daily grind and lift off once again. In 1973, Dellentash spotted an irresistibly priced aircraft for sale in a copy of “Airplane Trader.” “I just wanted to feel that freedom when my plane left the runway, when I could go anywhere I wanted,” he recalls. Dellentash flew to Oklahoma to complete the sale, but learned that the vendor, known as “Flamin’ Eddie,” had been found dead in his bathtub. The plane was a wreck, and in desperation, Dellentash tried to cancel his check. His bank suggested that he take a loan against the title of the plane instead. Remarkably, he left the bank with a check for $300,000 — for a plane worth next to nothing. “I realized I was on to something,” he says.

A young Alfred Dellentash Jr. with his father.
A young Alfred Dellentash Jr. with his father.

Dellentash quit his construction job and set up an airplane sales and charter company at Hanger 17 in Teterboro, New Jersey. Though he used the bank’s cash to finance his spending, he was often too broke to afford gas. Dellentash recalls buying a consignment of light aircraft in Sweden that turned out to be overhead camera planes used for geometric surveys. They had trap doors on the bottom, and when asked if he wanted them sealed, Dellentash said, “No. I’ve got an idea.”

“I’ll buy as many of these damned trap-door planes as you can sell me,” said Lenny, one of Dellentash’s customers from Oklahoma. Under his cowboy hat, Lenny was a shaggy-haired triple-A athlete who chose booze and girls over the big leagues. Dellentash knew Lenny and his boys flew bales of pot from Mexico, and dropped their load into fields across the Sooner state without even landing. Everyone was doing it, Lenny said. Together, they figured the trap doors would be perfect.

A 1970s New York Times editorial titled FLYING DRUG-RUNNERS REAP BIG PROFITS described these early, aerial smugglers: “They fly low and slow and by the light of the moon, and make $50,000 a night.” The piece quotes a Customs agent, who said: “Anybody who knows how to fly can get into the business and make a lot of money in a hurry if he can get away with it.” Dellentash was intrigued.

“You know anyone who can pick up 1,500 pounds of marijuana?” Lenny asked, one afternoon.

“Where is it?” said Dellentash.

“Belize.”

“Why not?” When opportunity knocked, he always answered.

Dellentash leased a plane for the occasion and flew a rare push-pull Cessna Skymaster 337 over Central America, with propellers on the front and back of the aircraft. It was the first time Dellentash had flown one, and it was certainly the first time the Belizeans at the airport had seen a push-pull aircraft, because one of their men walked around the back and strolled into the rear propeller, still running at full speed. “It was a mess,” says Dellentash. The propeller almost decapitated the man, who fell with blood bubbling out of his nose and mouth. Someone finished him off with a revolver, Dellentash recalls. “It was a horrifying glimpse into my future.”

Dellentash decided against the drug game, instead using his title loan scam to buy more planes with the bank’s money and lease them to rich businessmen. He found a bank in Oklahoma that wasn’t part of the FDIC and wrangled a $200,000 line of credit. This was the era of the “check float” that enabled many con artists: After a check was deposited, three days were required until the funds were debited from the payer’s account. As a result, a check writer could expect to receive approximately nine days of free money. And with that, his Cessnas became Falcons, and those Falcons became Learjets. As America entered the “Me decade” of the 1970s, one man was climbing faster than the rest, and he wasn’t looking down.

But running an airline like Dellentash’s required a 121 Air Carrier Certification from the Federal Airline Authority (FAA), which involved boring application letters and safety checks. Dellentash bypassed the requirements by calling his business a leasing company instead of an airline. He cleverly ran a separate crewing company to dodge the rules. The FAA was not impressed.

In the late 1970s, agent Charles P. Braunstein was assigned to both the New York and New Jersey FAA offices and tasked with investigating fraudulent Air Taxi certifications. “Most operators I met during that time were cordial and interesting to know,” Charles Braunstein told me in an email. “But in each case I was disappointed to find out they were involved with drugs.”

In 1977 the agent was assigned to Dellentash’s “Triple-D” Corporation. He would spend years chasing Dellentash, whose company was — in Braunstein’s words — the epitome of the fly-by-night airlines that were a danger to American passengers.

When he secured the contract to fly Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the third in line to the Saudi throne (and now the king), Dellentash’s aircraft received automatic diplomatic immunity, taking him above the clutches of the FAA. And the more luxurious the planes he hustled, the richer and more fabulous his clients became. Mick Jagger inquired about a private jet, and Dellentash piloted a helicopter from New Jersey to Woodstock to pick him up.

Within months, he was the personal pilot for the Stones, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Grateful Dead and John Denver. He financed the purchase of a Falcon jet by forging signatures on a 300-page loan agreement after a bank turned him down. The planes were a key to the lifestyle he was chasing: More planes meant more money, and more groupies and as much fun as he could handle — as long as he was home for Sunday dinner with his family, like any good Italian-American husband.

The cash and rock connections inspired Dellentash to dabble in his own music pursuits: He dreamed of becoming a music mogul like his famous passengers. He started talent-spotting in New Jersey bars, where he discovered a band called Whiplash. “I said, ‘Let me manage you, I’ll make you huge!’” Dellentash marched them to Manny’s Music and let them spend $30,000 on guitars. “I was at my happiest then,” he says. “I was living a life other kids from New Rochelle could only dream about.” His wife was also struggling to keep up with him. “I tried to involve her in my world,” he says. “She didn’t want to go to rock concerts — she wanted to be at home. I felt like I was torn between two worlds.”

Dellentash’s planes had fully stocked bars, king-sized beds, gold fixtures, thick carpeting, plants, phones, telex printers and electric typewriters, all unheard of in-flight luxuries at the time. “I got great contacts with film people, TV, rock promoters and managers,” he boasted during the People magazine interview. “I got a lot of money and a good business sense.” The article also earned him some unusual attention.

* * *

Miami International Airport, Florida — A piano-black Lincoln town car idled on the street. Leaning against it was a barrel-chested Italian-American clutching a leather purse, watching the jets land through dark-tinted glasses. He greeted Dellentash with a firm handshake and introduced himself as “Steve Teri.” He described himself on the telephone as a real estate developer, keen to talk business with the high-flying New Yorker from the pages of People.

Walking into a private room in his sprawling office, Steve said, “Listen, you’ve got the perfect setup. I need a plane to go to Pakistan.”

“Please sit down,” he added. “I need you to pick up some drugs.”

“The propeller disaster in Belize was fresh in my mind,” Dellentash says, “but everything with this guy just seemed organized. He made it all sound easy. He offered $150,000 in start-up money, so he was really talking my language.” But as Dellentash would discover, this gentleman’s name was not Steve Teri, and he was no realtor.

Dellentash decided to give the smuggling game another try and excitedly flew his Convair back to Stewart Airport in New York. But Charles Braunstein was waiting. FAA agents forced their way inside the cockpit and cited Dellentash for illegally operating an airline. With no foreign diplomats on board to protect him, Braunstein delivered a $770,000 fine and grounded the aircraft. This was the part of the job he loved — taking the keys. But Dellentash calmly asked a stewardess to fetch his briefcase, and minutes later, Braunstein watched the Convair roar into the skies again as he stood gripping a certified check for $78,000, the exact amount of the fine’s “payable.”

Despite Steve’s promises, the Pakistan job was a bust: When Dellentash arrived at the meeting point near Islamabad, armed Pakistani gangsters were engaged in shootout in a hotel lobby. Fleeing in a hail of gunfire, Dellentash escaped back to the States. Then Steve persuaded him to try a similar job in Colombia to recoup their money. Again, he promised it would be easy. He was a hard guy to turn down.

Dellentash took his old Oklahoman buddy Lenny as a co-pilot, for his experience and cool nature behind the controls. Though the pick-up in Colombia was stress-free, they didn’t take enough gas and barely made it back home. “I remember flying over the theme park in Orlando, and I could see the fairytale castle all lit up, and I was flat out of gas with a cargo hold full of drugs,” says Dellentash. “I was flying all over the place, thinking it was the end. We were gonna crash land with thousands of pounds of marijuana.” They searched for the promised buckets of fire. “I was making so much noise it was unbelievable,” he says. “I was coming in hot, but I said, ‘Fuck it, I gotta land this thing, or it’s gonna land me.’”

As the plane fell into a controlled descent, he flipped on the lights as they smashed into a farmer’s field. “Before that night I never thought a cow could have an expression,” he laughs, “but they were scared!” The aircraft skidded into the mud. Dellentash shut down the engine and waited for the sound of trucks. Steve’s gang was quickly on hand to load up the drugs. Then a watchman ordered to fire a warning shot gave the signal that cops had arrived. The trigger-happy cops returned fire.

Dellentash ducked as the unmistakable BING! BING! BONG! of rounds struck the plane. The cockpit window exploded. “They’re shooting at us!” he screamed, and they ran into the dark night.

* * *

Steve was furious. If he had been there, he said, the FBI would have busted him. He told Dellentash that his real name was Salvatore Ruggiero, the younger brother of the fearsome gangster Angelo Ruggiero, and the ringleader of New York’s Pleasant Avenue Connection drug ring, a forerunner to the legendary Pizza Connection. “I’m the most wanted man by the DEA,” he confessed. The mobster was desperate to earn his $250,000 back from the failed missions. “The problem is your guys,” Dellentash suggested. “Respectfully, I want to keep you out of it. You give me the Colombian contacts, I’ll make the pick-up and deliver it to New York. I’ll make it like Federal Express … for drugs!”

Steve, or Salvatore, invited Dellentash to a restaurant in Miami Beach. At midnight a Colombian walked in with two girls on each arm. “He was one of the best-looking guys I ever saw,” says Dellentash. “And the girls he was with? I wanted to pinch them to make sure they were real.” That man was Carlos Lehder, who revolutionized the cocaine industry and teamed up with American smuggler George Jung, making millions of dollars and winning the trust of the biggest suppliers of cocaine in Columbia: Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel. Lehder gripped Dellentash’s hand and looked him in the eye.

Later, at one of Salvatore’s pork stores in Fort Lauderdale, the three men talked as their breath hung in the chilled air. “Here’s another fifty for expenses — now can you not fuck this up?” Salvatore joked as he handed Dellentash a tinfoil package of cash. Dellentash was in business with the mob.

Braunstein was waiting as he taxied down the runway at Stewart Airport in New York one day in 1980. “You’re running an illegal airline and this time we are confiscating your aircraft, Dellentash,” he said, but the pilot pushed past him towards a waiting limousine. Dellentash wound down the mirrored window and tossed him the keys. “You can keep the damned thing,” he said with a smile, as the car slid away. “I got others.”

* * *

Dellentash and I are eating at a diner in Studio City, California. Sly Stallone is holding court five tables down, but the waitresses fuss over Dellentash, mainly because he tips roughly 200%. Over eggs, Dellentash says he would rather talk about his rock music achievements. In around 1980, his rock star passengers introduced him to the famous music attorney David Sonenberg, who asked if Dellentash would like to co-manage Meat Loaf. His first client was one of the record industry’s most successful, and troublesome, talents. “I was delighted, but I felt like being in a pressure cooker,” says Dellentash. “I was living my dream, to become a big player in the music business. Meat Loaf had the talent, and he had the songs. Meat Loaf’s only problem was he looked like Meat Loaf.”

“The music biz was clearly a sideline for Al,” Meat Loaf wrote in his 2000 autobiography. “He would tell these stories about flying to Libya with a load of automatic weapons. It was enough to make me afraid of him. One day Dellentash came into the studio. He’d bought in a shoebox wrapped in tinfoil. I opened it expecting to see cookies. When I took the tinfoil off I saw it was full of hundred-dollar bills. Wrapped like in the movies, with the little seal around them… I said, ‘Whoa,’ and wrapped it again fast.”

Together, Sonenberg and Dellentash wrangled cash advances from record companies for Meat Loaf albums, tours and movies. Dellentash brought street charm and muscle to the bargaining table; Sonenberg crunched the numbers. That year, Dellentash helped the Bay City Rollers sell an album to CBS International for $250,000; he hung out with Jimmy Iovine, who would later go on to form Interscope Records and the Beats by Dre headphones empire. Meanwhile, his airplane business attracted huge clients like OPM, the crooked computer leasing business that stole $225 million from various banks and guru Shri Hans Ji Maharaj, the leader of the questionable religious sect The Divine Light. They were all attracted to Dellentash — and the vast riches he was accumulating.

Dellentash purchased a lavish headquarters on Riverside Drive in New York City and furnished it with Louis XIV furniture. The lobby was dressed entirely in gold and paneled in rich mahogany. There was even a pink room with a pink grand piano at the center. “I had a private chef, and a full-time guy just to keep the fireplaces roaring at all times and a theater room with a twenty-foot screen,” he says. “We’d host sex parties with all the best girls.” Dellentash was now dressed to kill, wearing $400 shirts and shoes made from exotic animals. He employed a former college linebacker for a bodyguard who had twenty-one-inch biceps and reveled in his nickname, “The Brick.”

Dellentash started to become tempted by the beautiful women who populated the music industry, the girls befitting of his new status as one of New York’s rising stars. One spring day in 1980, he held a casting for a Meat Loaf video called “Read ’Em and Weep.” The last girl arrived wearing killer high-heels and a tight pantsuit.

Bonnie was a waitress at the Playboy nightclub on East 59th Street, the imposing nine-story building that boasted over 38,000 square feet of adult fun. To her delight, Bonnie found the Playboy job also came with a host of perks: She launched a submarine in Groton and played baseball with the Navy Seals. When the music business required attractive girls, they knew Playboy bunnies were available.

“I immediately fell for her, the moment she walked in the door,” says Dellentash. At the casting call, Bonnie waited in the doorway with her hands on her hips. Dellentash’s full-time fire-tender, distracted by the blonde, nearly let the flames go out.

“She was drop-dead gorgeous,” says Dellentash. “But she knew it!”

Dellentash with Bonnie, 22 at the time.
Dellentash with Bonnie, 22 at the time.

“His office was ridiculous,” Bonnie tells me. “He sat behind a twenty-five-foot desk, and his chair was an airplane seat. It even had a safety buckle! I just saw this huge ego. He asked me out, but I said no way.”

Somehow Dellentash convinced her to fly on his private jet to watch another of his artists, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, play a sell-out concert at the Blossom Music Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Afterwards, he let her take the controls and they listened to Blondie records as they soared through the clouds, back to his ludicrously appointed residence overlooking Central Park. That night she slept on his sofa and was gone before he awoke. With her blue-collar upbringing and street smarts, Bonnie was more than just a match for Dellentash: She was a challenge. At the time he had the pick of almost every woman in New York, and naturally, he desired the one he couldn’t have.

“Chasing Bonnie had become a full-time job,” Dellentash recalls. But a second date turned into a third, and soon she had moved into his apartment. Dellentash was still married but says his heart already belonged to Bonnie. She was more than a lover; she was a co-pilot.

* * *

The twin islands of Little and Great Inagua are the bird-watching capital of the Bahamas. More than 80,000 pink West Indian flamingos reside there, but that’s not what drew Dellentash to the islands. The coral surrounding Inagua made it inaccessible to Cuban smugglers in speedboats, granting an opportunity to a drugs pilot.

At the pork store meeting, Carlos Lehder enthused to Dellentash about the potential for the Bahamas as a drug transshipment point. He had arrived in nearby Norman’s Cay in 1978, buying up large pieces of property, including a home for himself known as The Volcano and an airstrip. Dellentash knew he had a lot of work to do: “Do you know how hard it is to corrupt an entire island?” he laughs while recounting the story.

Dellentash decided to arrive in flamboyant style: He performed a loop-de-loop when he landed in Nassau and hired the best bungalow at the best hotel on the island, bringing Bonnie under the guise of a island vacation. “When we arrived there were pink sheets, pink pillows and the walls were decorated pink,” recalls Bonnie. “There was even pink toilet paper. He’d hired a Bahamian guitar player to play ‘Love on the Rocks’ for me, by Neil Diamond, but calypso style.”

“The worst fucking guitar player in history,” says Dellentash.

But there was business to do: He had to set up one of the most effective drug routes in history. The first few missions were a dream, he says. Dellentash and Lenny flew down to the Bahamas from Florida and refueled at Inagua. They took with them $40,000 in cash — $15,000 for the Bahamian military, $15,000 for customs and $5,000 for fuel. Soldiers would guard the plane all night from the prying eyes of the DEA or rival Cuban smugglers.

At five a.m. they took off from Inagua, and within hours they were flying over the jungles of Colombia. “You’d be looking for a guy on a tractor waving a red handkerchief,” recalls Dellentash. Out of the woods, a tractor arrived carrying 5,000 pounds of weed.

Back in Inagua, the military stood guard over the plane again as they refueled, then departed for Millville, New Jersey, where he used large hangars that served as ammunition dumps during the Second World War and replaced the padlocks with his own.

“I basically had my own airport,” says Dellentash.

That’s not to say the drug route wasn’t difficult or dangerous. Dellentash avoided the obvious routes into Miami and Jacksonville by flying into Cape Hatteras, a tempestuous strip of North Carolina coastline known to sailors and pilots as the “graveyard of the Atlantic.” There, deadly currents create countless shipwrecks, and few pilots dare to fly during storms. But these were the perfect conditions for “flying dead” through the night — with no lights or navigation, invisible to the authorities.

He remembers his cockpit illuminated with St. Elmo’s Fire, the mystical phenomenon that creates a halo of bright electricity around an aircraft. To some it was an omen of death, but to Dellentash it was just plain beautiful. Lights on the coastline twinkled out of the dark as he pulled the yoke, dropping even closer to sea level. At just a hundred feet above the water, sometimes a ghostly ship appeared through the sea mist, passing his wing by meters. He flew so low that the cold waves often sprayed the plane with seawater.

On board was 10,000 pounds of high-class marijuana wrapped in gabardine bags, with a street value of a million dollars. One night, his gas needle was flat-out dead as Kill Devil Hills loomed nearer. Named after smuggler-talk for rum, this was contraband county, and under the port side, black waters gave way to emerald green hills. At an unmanned Carolina airport he suddenly soared towards the heavens — a fake takeoff, designed to fool air traffic control to think he was domestic traffic. Often, Lenny was directly above him in an identical Cessna: “Double the load for just one radar blip,” he explains. But even with long-distance gas tanks, sometimes they only just made it home.

Under the cover of darkness, they unloaded the pot in Millville. Passenger seats were loaded into the Cessna and marijuana leaves vacuumed away. Then their truck wound its way up the New Jersey Turnpike into the city. A “smash” car followed: If cops pulled the van over, the back-up driver would deliberately crash into the cops and take off. He never needed it, Dellentash says. But it paid to be organized.

Dellentash relaxes with Bonnie in the Bahamas. At this time, he was one of Pablo Escobar's personal pilots, and a partner of the notorious crime boss Salvatore Ruggiero.
Dellentash relaxes with Bonnie in the Bahamas. At this time, he was one of Pablo Escobar’s personal pilots, and a partner of the notorious crime boss Salvatore Ruggiero.

Between 1979 and 1982, Alfred Dellentash imported millions of dollars of Pablo Escobar’s cannabis and cocaine directly into New York, riding a wave of crime that changed the very fabric of American life. His cover made him absolutely bulletproof: By day he was a rock ’n’ roll impresario in the studio with chart-topping acts, by night he was hiding seven million dollars in cash behind fake walls in his home.

When he speaks of this era, Dellentash talks fast, and continuously adds “in the interim,” as a way to cycle between the worlds orbiting his gravitational pull: planes, rock stars, drugs and Bonnie. “Keeping all the plates spinning was becoming impossible,” he says.

Bonnie and Dellentash were hitting the town every night: Studio 54, Underground, Savoy Club and the Ritz, laughing like teenagers in the back of limousines. “People were falling over themselves to let us into the clubs,” Bonnie recalls. “He was a celebrity.” Champagne flowed, flakes of pure cocaine were pushed into long rails. His fame soared.

But cracks were appearing. The Meat Loaf movie was a flop: “Dead Ringer” “barely made sense,” a reviewer wrote in The New York Times. Dellentash spread himself too thin, and while Bonnie had just a small part in the movie, she had taken over the second lead role in Dellentash’s life. That’s not to say he was always truthful: One night Bonnie walked into a restaurant and spotted him dining when he was supposed to be in the Bahamas.

“You said you were in the islands!” she yelled, throwing a drink.

“I am!” said Dellentash, soaked in a cosmopolitan. “Long Island!”

* * *

Bodies started turning up in the Bahamas. A yacht belonging to a retired couple was found drifting near Norman’s Cay. Carlos Lehder was thought to be behind it. “The Bahamians got greedy,” says Dellentash. “Inagua was no longer low-key — you had to line up behind twelve other drug planes to take off,” he says. “The bunk house where we slept looked like that canteen in ‘Star Wars’ — everyone had guns and was doing blow all night.”

President Reagan was now in power, struggling to dig America out from under a new recession. And Salvatore Ruggiero, now earning huge profits from the scheme, tried to interest Dellentash in the heroin industry by giving him a sample. Dellentash arranged for two known junkies to test its quality; both immediately overdosed and were taken to the hospital.

Then, during a party in Manhattan, a fashion model accidentally snorted that heroin, “Pulp Fiction”-style, by confusing the powder with cocaine and collapsed during sex with one of Dellentash’s gang. “I thought I had a body on my hands,” says Dellentash. “I finally bought her around by thumping her chest. I was screaming at her, ‘I ain’t going to jail because of you!’” Heroin was a curse, Dellentash says, and he vowed to avoid it at all costs. “The mob were not supposed to be involved in drugs. The Gambino family prohibited it,” he says. By the spring of 1981, the matter had driven a rift between him and Salvatore.

“We’re going into the heroin business,” enthused Salvatore.

“The problem with heroin is your brother’s involved,” said Dellentash. “And you always said getting involved with your brother is the road to the end.”

In a ferocious argument, Salvatore ordered Dellentash to gear down his music business and concentrate on importing heroin from the Golden Triangle, the infamous drug-producing region spanning Northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. But Dellentash was on the brink of making record-label history. He says he was working with an unknown teenager named Jon Bon Jovi, a kid he believed would become a star. Dellentash wanted out of drugs altogether. Then Salvatore threatened him: “That little blonde girl of yours,” he said, “she’s a distraction. Do we need to remove her from the situation?”

Bonnie was blissfully unaware of Dellentash’s moonlighting. She had met “Steve Teri” once and hated him. By now, Dellentash had got her out of the Playboy Club and into fashion school, but she was pressuring him to settle down. He kept on promising “tomorrow.”

“I never felt like the other woman,” Bonnie says. “I was always the number one.”

Salvatore demanded a meeting and told Dellentash to send a plane to bring him from New York to his Florida headquarters for a sit-down. The Gates Learjet 23 was a favorite of Dellentash’s because it had the call sign N100-TA, which he jokes stood for “Tits and Ass.” It took off as planned at 11:35 a.m. on May 6, 1981, from Teterboro airport, climbing to 24,000 feet at a rate of 300 knots. The pilot was informed it was a perfect day for flying, and on board he was joined by a co-pilot and just two passengers, Salvatore Ruggiero and his wife.

“Descend to maintain flight level three nine zero,” came the call from air traffic control, and the pilot duly acknowledged, stabilizing her at 39,000 feet. But one minute and thirty-two seconds later, the co-pilot hurriedly reported that the plane was going down. In the background, air traffic control overheard a warning horn. The plane was in free-fall. It made another transmission, but air traffic control could not understand it.

Dellentash's infamous Learjet, number N100TA, or "tits and ass," as it came to be known, on the tarmac at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
Dellentash’s infamous Learjet, number N100TA, or “tits and ass,” as it came to be known, on the tarmac at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

“Say again,” said air traffic control. “Say again.”

A passing fishing boat found the wreckage of the interior of a fancy jet, and told authorities of sharks eating the bodies. Dellentash was in the studio when the phone rang.

“I thought you were dead,” said Agent Charles Braunstein. Dellentash pulled down the volume lever on the mixing deck. He swung his chair away from Sonenberg and held the phone closer to his ear.

“Did you know your Learjet just crashed off Savannah, Georgia?”

“What?”

“Your Learjet just crashed. Who was on board, Al?”

“Must have been a charter.”

“Who was on board?”

Dellentash paused.

“My friend Steve Teri and his wife.”

* * *

The FBI was already listening when Dellentash called Angelo Ruggiero, Salvatore’s brother, with the bad news. Agents disguised as construction workers planted listening devices in Angelo’s kitchen, dining room and even bugged the princess phone in his daughter’s bedroom.

“This is Angelo,” said the voice.

“It’s me,” said Dellentash. “The brother’s dead.”

There was a pause.

“Who killed him?”

“No one. He crashed in my plane this morning. I swear to God.”

“What did you say?”

FBI Agents later heard how difficult it was for Angelo to accept his brother’s death because the body was in “fuckin’ pieces.” Angelo said: “If Sal would have been shot in the head and they found him in the streets — that’s part of our life, I could accept that.”

“Listen, I’ve got guys on my back,” Dellentash told Angelo. “I got his assets, he’s been living in my house and we’re one day away from the Feds being here. I’m gonna have to tell them it was him on board. Okay? We need to clean house.”

“Where’s the heroin?” Angelo demanded.

“I don’t touch heroin.”

“Listen, whoever has this heroin,” said Angelo, “I’m gonna put a shark in my pool, and I’m gonna feed that guy to a shark like a spaghetti dinner.” Dellentash put the phone down, and went cold. Just a moment ago he had an empire, a music career and a future with Bonnie. Now, he was looking at decades in jail, or worse: death.

After all, he knew Salvatore’s heroin was stashed at his home.

* * *

The death of Salvatore Ruggiero set off a chain of events that would create an internal war within the Gambino Family and eventually lead to the crowning of John Gotti as its leader. It also drove a rift between Dellentash and Bonnie. Shortly after the crash, the FBI wrote to Bonnie to inform her that her phone had been tapped. Naturally, she demanded answers.

“I want my own life,” she told him.

On a good night as a waitress at a comedy club in the city, Bonnie was now earning $1,500. She told Dellentash he could have been just a big success without all the schemes and cons. She was an honest girl from a good family and didn’t deserve all this. They split, and, heart-broken, he fled to his winter home in Vermont to clear his head. But his phone didn’t stop ringing.

“I got serious problems, Al, I’m in a fix,” said Lenny.

“I told you I’m on vacation. Call me after Christmas, Lenny.”

“They might take my life, Al. I might not be around next year.”

Lenny said he needed money to get him out of trouble. He said he owed a connection in Louisiana some cash for a cocaine deal, and Dellentash was the only guy he could trust to help.

“How much do you need?” asked Dellentash.

“Two hundred and fifty.”

Dellentash saw an opportunity. “What if I gave you a hundred and fifty, and enough heroin to hold on to as collateral?” he said, eager to get rid of the stuff. Dellentash never liked bringing cash and drugs together in the same place, because it increased the risk for all parties involved. But he could help Lenny and himself, so he agreed to drive to a hotel in Louisiana.

Two men knocked on the door of room 12, and Dellentash let them in. One was tall, black, with prison tattoos and earrings. “The other guy was a nervous junkie,” says Dellentash. “The whole situation stunk. I was gonna get rolled, and I knew it.”

Dellentash pulled his gun, but the door crashed in and twenty guys appeared. A shotgun butt smashed into Dellentash’s jaw, knocking out five teeth. The gun flew out of his hand, and his mouth poured with blood as he staggered to his feet. Another punch floored him. “I was certain they were gonna kill me right there,” he says. “Then they started screaming, ‘Police!’”

“I was relieved!” admits Dellentash. “I thought it was a take-down. I thought I was gonna get killed.” In handcuffs, Dellentash figured it all out. Lenny had been busted, he figured, and turned him in for a lighter sentence. He watched a cop take $10,000 from his stash and hand it to the two crooks. “It was a total setup,” he says.

From East Baton Rouge police station, Dellentash was taken to the local jail and locked up alone. He was charged with criminal conspiracy to distribute heroin and firearms offenses. They allowed him just one five-minute telephone call, and it was a miracle Bonnie picked up. “It’s me. I’m locked up in a dungeon — I’m in federal. Just tell everyone I’m okay.” he said. The money ran out just before he added: “I love you.”

“I thought he could beat anything,” Bonnie tells me. “The arrest made me realize I couldn’t imagine life without Al. He just… got me. He understood me. No other man did. Al didn’t need money or planes to win me. He thought he did, but he didn’t.”

Dellentash was arraigned to appear in Baton Rouge state court. The judge was an elderly Southern gentleman who ordered Dellentash to stand and make his plea.

“Not guilty,” he said, defiantly.

The judge sighed and slowly put on his spectacles.

“You’re from the north, I believe?”

“Yes, sir. New Jersey.”

“Well let me explain in terms you’ll understand. Imagine you are at a barbecue,” he said, as sniggers broke out among the clerks, “and you’re the chicken.”

* * *

Jack Dampf was a popular Baton Rouge defense attorney who had practiced law in the area for eight years. He was thirty-four and kept a busy office thanks to his captivating turn of phrase in the courtroom. He was expensive, Dellentash recalls, but worth every penny.

“I thought Dellentash was toast,” Dampf told me on the telephone. “The cops tested a sample of the heroin he was holding in their lab, and they had never seen anything quite like it. I mean, it was off-the-scale pure. They knew just by the purity of the heroin that Dellentash was involved incredibly high up the chain — or he was Mafia.”

Dampf says he was summoned to a confidential room in the U.S. attorney’s office, where he met a group of Organized Crime Strike Force officers from Chicago and New York. The officers showed him black-and-white photos of Dellentash with various celebrities. “There was Dellentash with organized crime figures, rock stars, and I think I saw one with Frank Sinatra. I was taken aback,” says Dampf.

“He is a very well-known person,” the officers explained. “He’s part of an organized crime gang.”

“And there I was thinking he was toast,” says Dampf.

That night, Bonnie held his hand in the prison visiting room, where they sat among the terrorists, arms dealers, their wives and children.

“You’ll work it out. If anyone can dodge this, you can,” she said.

Dampf pushed for a proffer, an agreement that allows a person under criminal investigation to provide information about crimes with assurances of protection against prosecution. Dampf requested total immunity for his client, because testifying about organized crime and drugs would mean signing his death warrant. And though it broke his heart, Dellentash told Bonnie, “You can date other people, you know. You can’t wait around for me. I’m gonna be gone a long time.”

Gotti’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) trial began in August 1986, with the prosecution relying heavily on testimony by convicted felons. “I had to stand there and give my evidence, and the courtroom was packed with wiseguys, staring straight at me,” says Dellentash. Dressed in their Sunday best were John Gotti, Gene Gotti and their crew. In the gallery, Dellentash says he saw one thug mime the unloading of a pump action shotgun in his direction.

The trial was a farce. One witness committed perjury by accusing the prosecution of offering him drugs in prison in return for testimony, while other witnesses admitted that their testimony was buying them shorter sentences. After a long and rancorous trial in which the defense repeatedly traded personal slurs with the prosecutors, Gotti was acquitted in March of 1987.

Dellentash received fifteen years for conspiracy to distribute heroin and ten years for possession of felony weapons. His wife divorced him as he languished in a high-security jail where he paced an isolation cell in his underwear. Bonnie reluctantly moved on. After he was released in July 1988, having served just five years, Dellentash tried to make a new life for himself. He ran a restaurant in Rutland, Vermont, before a federal agent tipped off a journalist who wrote the front-page headline: “Mob Man in Mendon.” But all he really wanted was to get Bonnie back.

“She slammed the door on my face whenever I called,” he says. Though her heart was elsewhere, Bonnie tells me she could never forget about Dellentash: “I’d listen to the radio, and every song would remind me of Al.”

When Bonnie was rushed to the hospital with acute stomach pains in 1988, doctors thought it was life-threatening. A mutual friend told Dellentash, who ran to the hospital. “Seeing him there was magical,” Bonnie tells me. Though it was only a burst appendix, the drama reunited the couple. “You can’t help how your heart feels,” she says. Bonnie agreed to take him back, if he quit his hustling for good.

“You’ve got to have a real life now,” she told him.

“I don’t even know what a real life is,” Dellentash said.

And then one day he woke up and she had run away to California without leaving a note. Dellentash followed her.

“I booked the first ticket out of New York. One way. I had no money left and I had no idea what I was going to do,” he says.

“Luckily he brought only his good side to California,” Bonnie says. “He left the bad guy back East.”

* * *

Dellentash with Bonnie at their house in the Bahamas at the height of his drug-importation success.
Dellentash with Bonnie at their house in the Bahamas at the height of his drug-importation success.

Our last interview takes place at a busy chain restaurant in a shopping mall in Los Angeles. Bonnie is here too, and she is beautiful and fun. She tells the stories better than Dellentash. It is a Friday night, and there are cocktails — Dellentash is in a reflective mood. He finally tells the truth about his motivations for telling his story: He is in remission from stage-four cancer. But this is a now-or-never mea culpa.

He concludes that he spent his life on the run, and his pursuits all followed a common theme: Escape. There were planes, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, but they were all just means of getting higher, faster and richer than the rest. He ran from the domestic boredom of New Rochelle, becoming a modern-day Peter Pan: He refused to grow up and instead flew to mysterious islands, battled pirates, lost his Wendy.

“I stopped running when I took a job as a car salesman,” he says, “being told how to sell a car by a teenager.” Of course the phone still rang: Would he like to produce a rap record? Hire some planes for a trip to Colombia? Move some goods to the Midwest? But all this would mean losing Bonnie.

His supervisors watched with wonder as this mysterious East Coast transplant made sale after sale, quickly becoming one of the area’s best sales managers. Now he mentors young salesmen with criminal pasts. When he married Bonnie they filled a pretty suburban home with nice furniture and had two kids, now grown up. What he was running from all that time turned out to be the very thing that made him feel so complete.

“The prosecutor in the Gotti case said that it was suspicious how Salvatore died in my plane,” says Dellentash. I suggest it was a hell of a coincidence, to which he responds: “If I killed one of the Gambino guys, then testified against Gotti, do you think I’d be sitting here eating dinner with you?”

Whatever the truth is, he still prefers to sit where he can see the door.

The waitress hovers, refilling his coffee after almost every sip, it seems. He takes a bite of his omelet and says, “I’m living a second chance.”

* * *

*Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

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Secret Lives

Secret Life of a Leftist Doomsday Prepper

When it comes to preparing for the end of civilization, gun-loving red-staters aren't the only ones taking matters into their own hands.

Everyone in California is waiting for “The Big One,” an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 or greater that will destroy infrastructure and cause mass panic. Yet when I moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast, I discovered that since most of the people I knew were making do with small apartments and ever-increasing rent, having supplies on hand for a natural disaster required a space premium that many couldn’t afford. I began to put together an earthquake kit that would not only serve my household (which over the years fluctuated from one to three other people) but also my neighborhood, if needed. Even with all that work, I didn’t consider myself a prepper, just someone who heeded the Red Cross’s warnings.

When the average person thinks about doomsday preppers, they probably think of paranoid right-leaning wing nuts clinging to a small arsenal of guns and stockpiling toilet paper from Walmart in case their conspiracy theories come true. It’s a fair assumption — many television depictions reflect that mind-set, though the fears vary from group to group. Some are afraid of government collapse, others fear a solar flare, still others are preparing for a race war they think is inevitable. When those are the dominant examples, it’s easy to dismiss the practice as absurd and hysterical.

I am a leftist, anarchist prepper, and while we differ politically, I have to admit, the extreme preppers you see on TV are not completely out of their minds.

Me and my walking stick in the Bay Area.

I used to focus only on preparing for earthquakes and other natural disasters. That changed in 2011 when I went to my first protest, an Occupy Oakland action, with a medic bag. I didn’t know yet that I’d be out there for hours, so I didn’t have supplies I consider basic now — food, caffeine, extra smokes, insoles for my combat boots. I didn’t know how aggressive the police would be, and the handkerchief around my neck was more for a punk look than medical necessity. I hadn’t received formal training to be a street medic; I just happened to know first aid and CPR and wanted to help. I carried a 15-pound bag on my back, full of medical supplies, mainly gauze and tape but also things like tourniquets that I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I was scared — I’d had rubber bullets shot at me the night before — but I was determined to drop off water to the protesters and make sure that people had sterile supplies.

That night, I tasted tear gas for the first time. You smell it before you taste it, and you taste its strange, bitter sting before it fills your lungs or blinds you. I was alone, and terrified, among a crowd that was shouting and crying and panicked in the streets.

“Disperse!” came the command from the helicopter hovering above us. Every exit point seemed blocked by clouds of tear gas or the loud kapow! of flash-bangs. Every explosion startled me; I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. Rubber bullets were being shot at us from every direction by cops dressed in SWAT gear, as if this was a war, not a protest. Someone next to me fell to the ground grabbing his face. I saw he was bleeding and scared, and I dropped next to him, telling him he was going to be OK, that I was a medic. It was my first time treating a wound in the street during a fray. Looking down at my hands and seeing a stranger’s blood on my gloves chilled me, but there wasn’t time to feel anything. My legs moved on autopilot, going from person to person to check on them. “Do you need a medic?” I found myself shouting over the noise every time I heard a scream.

I went home, shaken and shaking, all of the adrenaline flooding me at once. I slept uneasily, tossing and turning in my bed. I wanted my partner to sleep next to me, but also couldn’t bear to be touched. I had nightmares that lasted for weeks: dizzying, confusing dreams where I was struggling to breathe or see but could hear pain all around me, and I would wake up panting and sweating.

Despite the trauma, I kept going to protests. I felt grimly determined, and as I kept going, I became more desensitized to the chaos. My medic bag evolved into something more suited for treating the effects of police brutality than simply a place to keep extra snacks and water on hand. I learned from other medics how police often target medics and organizers for arrest in order to destabilize and demoralize the entire group, and I grimly prepared for an inevitable attack or arrest.

I also began to realize that I needed to prep for something that’s increasingly as likely as earthquakes: large-scale civil unrest, which I witnessed a taste of in the streets that night. I began to think of how people act when they’re scared, including and especially law enforcement. I started to think about home security, transportation options if fuel was limited, how to access information without the internet. I studied natural disasters and their repercussions around the world as a way to understand how to keep myself and my community safer.

* * *

While I was beginning to explore the art of prepping, I met my partner, a fellow anarchist who specializes in constructing urban shelters and creating makeshift weapons out of random finds from the local dumpster. Ape is many things I am not — slender where I am curvy, tan where I am pale, easygoing where I am exacting. One of the bonds of our relationship is our enjoyment of teaching and learning from each other. Ape teaches me how to handle and care for knives and guns, while I teach him how to recognize medicinal herbs in an urban setting, how to preserve food, and how to stitch up a wound. Rather than depending on each other to do certain tasks, we’ve worked on becoming capable of filling in for each other in a pinch, leading us to learn new skills that we’ve found useful while camping, when the car breaks down, or during any number of other mundane situations. Our shared nerdy interest in preparing for disaster, combined with our complementary skills, has made casual but constant prepping a core part of our relationship. While other couples may prefer a nice candlelit dinner out, I love poring over the most recent articles in Survival Magazine or seeing what new products knife company Cold Steel has this month.

Ape and I had sex at an “End of the World” orgy on the night of Trump’s election. The crowd was mostly sex workers and queer folks. None of us wanted to face this election alone, so we got together at a friend’s loft apartment to handle the news as best we could — with food, alcohol and sex. What was normally a group of boisterous party animals started off with us tentatively nibbling at cheese and crackers, whispering to each other in corners, and halfheartedly making out, one eye always on the votes coming in. The room was increasingly quiet and depressed as the votes were counted and we realized that our worst nightmare, a United States governed by the pinnacle of toxic masculinity, was coming true.

When it became clear that Trump was going to be our next president, silence descended over the mostly naked crowd. Everyone seemed frozen in place. I felt a sinking in my gut and I knew what we needed to do; my boyfriend and I looked at each other and began to dress without a word.

“I’ll grab my medic bag,” I said quietly to him as I pulled my socks on, and he nodded. We knew we were going out into the streets of Oakland that night.

We arrived at the protest in Oakland’s downtown Oscar Grant Plaza while people were still shouting through megaphones at a crowd pulsating with fury and fear. When we took to the streets, I reached for Ape’s hand, both for reassurance and so we wouldn’t lose each other. We interlaced our fingers when we heard the first flash-bang — I flinched but kept walking. It wasn’t long before the police were throwing tear gas canisters into the crowd. While others turned to run and escape, we squeezed each other’s hands and walked into the fray to find people who needed our help. I didn’t know if we were going to be arrested, or injured, or even killed, but I knew I had to be there as long as I was needed.

We were out there for three days straight. Our lungs took weeks to recover from the gas and pepper spray we inhaled, but we took turns making mullein leaf tea to help the process along.

After that, I began to take my prepping a lot more seriously, even going so far as to make connections with similarly minded leftist survivalists to create a local list of resources, both online and off, covering things like who has what skills and who has extra water or food stored away.

* * *

I was on a forum online a couple of months ago looking for suggestions about bugout bags (prepacked bags you grab when escaping a dire situation) for urban environments, particularly if you’re more inclined to “bug in,” or shelter in place. Every sensible idea was accompanied by conspiracy theories about who or what was going to kill us all — a race war, a solar flare, a nuclear blast. Many of the commenters talked frankly, and sometimes cheerfully, about the need to kill other people in order to protect their families. Many of them wore Make America Great Again hats in their profile avatars, or actively supported the police in their forum signatures. They spoke with disgust about those they deemed “un-American,” particularly protesters who participated in Black Lives Matter or Occupy-type actions. Heather Heyer’s death — the woman who was mowed down by a white supremacist’s car during the Charlottesville, Virginia, protest — was seen as hilarious, not traumatizing.

Left, my bug in bag containing the essential medical supplies. Right, my slingshot used for protection.

I leaned back in my chair, my eyes scanning the vitriol on the forum, feeling anxious. The sun slowly set while I sat motionless behind the glowing screen, transfixed and horrified, my tea going from piping hot to ice cold. I forgot it was there. I could feel the tension in my gut clench tighter as I read the words of people threatening to spray bleach in the eyes of protesters at the next action. I was trying to figure out how real the threat was.

It was very clear that if I wanted to learn from the people on this forum, I couldn’t say anything about who I was or what I believed. Realizing that I might be chatting with the same people who were wielding guns at the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville was a startling moment, especially when I felt so safe at home in the Bay Area. Here, in my second-story apartment surrounded by an urban herb garden, my two cats weaving around my feet, I was more concerned about the police than my neighbors. But on this forum, I was brushing shoulders with the alt-right. As they regularly and violently vocalized, they were prepping, in part, to protect themselves from people like me.

Some of the items I keep in my bug in bag in case of any emergency.

This had troubling implications for what might happen locally if “The Big One” did hit. Would the people most prepared for life without the internet, hospital care and city infrastructure be the right-wingers who wanted to Make California Red Again? Would my black, transgender and disabled friends have to beg Trump supporters for supplies? That seemed more dangerous to me than the potential disaster itself.

While MAGA-hat wearers believe strongly that leftists and liberals are weak and ineffective in a survival scenario, I discovered that many of us already engage in activities that could be useful in an apocalypse. Knowing how to sew and mend clothes, reuse trash in creative ways, and fix machinery were all things I found among my artsy friends, for example. My witchy friends knew a lot about herbs and urban foraging. And a surprising amount of my Burning Man community not only knew a lot about filtering and recycling water or using alternative energy but also seemed to own and use guns, contrary to the belief I heard on conservative Twitter that a lack of weapons would be the left’s downfall.

Just last week I was sitting at a worn picnic table in the back of my favorite dive bar, drinking a PBR tall can and debating favorite guns with a group of friends. The air was warm even as the sun started to go down, and Edison lights illuminated our faces while we chatted. The conversation was spirited but friendly, all of us bonded by a love of camping, metalworking, and yes, weapons training. I was about halfway through my beer, eagerly discussing my desire to develop my upper-body strength to have a steadier hand with various pistols. The sun set while my friends, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, continued to argue about which guns would be best in a zombie apocalypse, a thought experiment we used to discuss end-of-the-world scenarios that involve medical crises, hostile attacks, and the total collapse of city infrastructure all happening at once. For some, this might just be a silly conversation, but for us it offered a chance to work through multiple disaster scenarios at the same time and talk through real plans and theories.

Me putting a bandage on a friend at the my favorite dive bar.

By talking about prepping with more and more friends, I began to discover that many of them were also interested in developing skills that would be useful in a serious crisis situation. Several of them were already doing the same thing my partner and I had done — creating bunkers full of supplies and developing networks that could effectively take care of each other if the shit hit the fan. My community includes urban farmers, people who butcher their own meat, people who can and pickle the fruit and veg they get in their community agriculture boxes.

While the prepper movement may seem very right wing on the internet, offline I’ve found a vibrant survivalist society that is adaptable and stronger than they get credit for. Being a leftist prepper is less rare than I expected. We just don’t talk about it as much on the internet. Which, if you’re concerned that people are going to raid your compound for supplies, is probably sensible when you think about it! I also realized that the prepping I uncovered in my communities was less about individual survival and more about creating an alternative infrastructure, since the ones in place are already failing our marginalized friends and family, even without a disaster looming. Mutual aid is the core of our organizing, instead of pure self-preservation. Knowing this, I’m confident that we will not only survive, but heal, rebuild and thrive.

Hidden History

The Gay Black American Who Stared Down Nazis in the Name of Love

One of the most brilliant minds of the Harvard class of ’35, Reed Edwin Peggram met his soulmate on the eve of World War II and risked everything to stay by his side.

In Italy at the end of 1944, the Negro 92nd Infantry Division of the United States Army discovered two gaunt men who claimed they had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. One man was thin and blonde with a “scholarly appearance.” The other had brown skin, a slight build and an erect carriage. After two years behind barbed wire, they said, they had fled the camp and gone on an incredible journey to reach the American lines: swimming in lakes, hiking through the snow-covered Apennines, and taking shelter in barns, caves, woods and the homes of friendly partisan supporters. They claimed they dodged bullets and ate leaves to survive; they said they bore witness to the slaughter of women and babies. Their names were Reed Peggram, an African-American, and Gerdh Hauptmann, his Danish friend, and they were “ragged and near collapse from hunger and fatigue.”

Max Johnson interviewing Reed Peggram and Gerdh Hauftman after their escape from a concentration camp, Dec. 30, 1944. (Photo courtesy The Baltimore Afro-American Archives)

Freelance war correspondent Max Johnson, writing for the Negro newspapers Call and Post, New York Amsterdam News and Baltimore Afro-American, reported this curious find. The headlines that accompanied his stories were purposefully provocative: “Negro Escapes German Camp in Italy,” “Two Scholars Flee Concentration Camp,” “How Boston Lad Studying in Denmark Escaped Nazis” and “Boy Friends Scorn Bombs, Come Out OK.” Although he reported their claims, Johnson was skeptical of Peggram’s tale, not even believing that he was an American citizen, since his “accent was decidedly British.” Another correspondent noted that Peggram claimed to have a bachelor’s and master’s from Harvard, that he spoke English flawlessly, along with four other languages, and that despite his ordeal, it was not his physical suffering that upset him most.

“One of my greatest losses was my diploma from Harvard,” Peggram said. “They don’t issue duplicates. But I still have my Phi Beta Kappa key.”

The two men refused to leave each other’s side, but it was not clear if Hauptmann would be allowed to return to the U.S. with Peggram. Johnson called their story, “a modern version of Damon and Pythias,” referencing the Greek legend of loyalty between friends. Here were “bonds of friendship so strong that even the Nazis were unable to break them.”

“If Peggram’s story proves to be correct,” wrote Johnson, “it will undoubtedly become one of the greatest human interest stories yet revealed in this war.”

* * *

Reed Edwin Peggram was born on July 26, 1914, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Harvey Thomas Peggram, worked variously as a shorthand teacher, a self-employed card writer, and, according to his World War I draft card, an artist. Harvey was inducted into the United States Army on November 6, 1917, and served overseas as a private in the medical unit between May 15, 1918, and September 9, 1919. He returned from the war “100 percent disabled,” and became a permanent resident at the Central State Hospital in Petersburg, Virginia, where he was treated for gas poisoning, according to his family. He would remain there until his death in 1956. For all intents and purposes, young Reed no longer had a father.

In the club photographs for the 1931 Boston Latin School literary and drama clubs, Peggram’s face stands out as the only African-American there. In a class of 262 students, Peggram ranked in the first quarter in scholarship. He received several awards and obtained honors on exams in Elementary Latin, Elementary French, Elementary German, and Advanced Latin. As it has been for hundreds of years of Boston Latin graduates, Harvard was the next step.

On his 1931 Harvard application, Peggram said he wanted “to become an accomplished linguist.” He applied for multiple scholarships, stating on financial aid forms that his mother had three additional children with her new husband, “Mr. Farrar,” and that his grandmother was his sole financial supporter. He also listed his father as dead. He was accepted to the college and distinguished himself, not just as a fine student but as one of the few black students at Harvard at the time.

Peggram’s undergraduate Harvard photo, 1935. (Photo courtesy Harvard University Archives.)

In 1934, applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, Peggram asked Dean A. Chester Hanford for a recommendation. “He is one of the highest scholars in his class,” wrote Hanford. “Last November he was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He is a thorough gentleman.” Hanford shared a copy of the letter with Peggram, who promptly thanked him. But there was another letter Peggram did not see.

“I wish to supplement my letter of May 29th to you about Mr. Reed Peggram by stating that he is a negro [sic],” Hanford wrote in his second letter. “It seemed to me that you should know that fact.”

“Thank you for your testimonial and letter about Reed Peggram,” responded tutor Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow. “I should like to thank you however for telling me that Peggram is a Negro. I should certainly have been somewhat taken aback if I had admitted a man with such a name unwarned.” Although Gow insisted this information would have no bearing, Peggram did not get the scholarship.

Peggram graduated from Harvard in 1935, magna cum laude, with the thesis, “A comparison of the personal element in Madame Bovary and L’Éducation Sentimentale.” Over the next two years, he would get his master’s from Harvard, study English and comparative literature at Columbia, and return to Harvard to begin work on his Ph.D. It is clear from Peggram’s letters that while there, he became infatuated with Leonard Bernstein, who would later become famous for composing the music for “West Side Story.” Bernstein arrived at Harvard in 1935 and was also a graduate of the Boston Latin School — perhaps the two already knew each other from high school.

One night at Harvard, Peggram and Bernstein sat side by side on a studio couch in a dimly lit room while a quartet played Beethoven. Peggram had asked that the lights be lowered because he believed that it was “more pleasant to listen to music in a room that has been darkened.” Peggram was in “ecstasy and agony at once,” sitting so close to Bernstein. Peggram requested a song from Debussy while Bernstein listened with eyes closed as if he was asleep. In a letter, Peggram would later explain that he felt, “ecstasy because you are here, and agony because I do not dare touch you, even in the dark, for fear of breaking the spell of such exquisite beauty.”

In a series of letters written to Bernstein in October 1937, Peggram referenced T.S. Eliot, Rachmaninoff, Eros and Psyche, Diaghilev’s treatment of Nijinsky, and the speech of Aristophanes in “The Symposium,” a discourse on love that says when a person, “happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment.” Leonard Bernstein’s archive at the Library of Congress only contains Peggram’s letters. Bernstein’s replies are lost, save for a few brief, devastating quotes that Peggram included in his own letters, which suggest that Bernstein rejected his overtures.

“The revelation of your letter,” wrote Peggram, “was after all, a great shock to me, and your use of the words ‘repulsive’ and ‘shudder’ an insult to the tenets which I hold sacred.” Later Peggram — demonstrating his preference for British spelling — beseeched Bernstein, “May I also request that, as a favour to me, you destroy all my letters and any other material that I have sent or given you during this regrettable incident?”

In 1938, Peggram got a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne: a chance to travel, a fresh start.

* * *

In the fall of 1938, Peggram met the person who would change his life. There is no record of how Peggram met Danish scholar Gerdh Hauptmann, who was studying fine art and painting at the Sorbonne, for the same reason that there is no written record of any facet of their relationship: They were gay, in a time when few dared to write such feelings down. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that this was the definitive romantic relationship of Peggram’s life. Hauptmann taught him Danish; he taught Hauptmann English. Within a year, he would write that they were “inseparable.”

“Recent European events have caused me to leave France for Denmark,” Peggram wrote in September 1939. “I hope you will also join your prayers to mine for humanity, civilization, and culture.”

Peggram spent the early months of the war working with Hauptmann on a 120-page manuscript, “Poems and Sketches,” a translation of the 19th century Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen. During this time, Peggram’s family and friends implored him to return to the U.S. while he still could. The U.S. State Department had already warned Americans to leave the European continent, but Peggram did not. Unable to declare his love for Hauptmann and explain that he would not leave Europe without the man he loved, Peggram baffled his family by insisting that his need to collaborate with Hauptmann on scholarly projects “richer and more profound than either of us had produced separately” made it impossible to leave Hauptmann behind.

The men left Copenhagen shortly before it was invaded by the Nazis on April 9, 1940. They fled to Paris to retrieve their luggage and made their way to Florence, Italy, where they wrongly assumed they would be safe. They spent the rest of the year stranded and broke, pleading for money from family in the U.S. who could not understand why Peggram would not just come home.

Information about Reed’s European movements are located in letters between him and Dorothy Norman, the editor and publisher of the journal Twice a Year from 1938 – 1948. “I am struggling for my life,” Peggram wrote on January 15, 1941. “If someone does not help me very soon, I shall just simply die.”

“We wish only to live, to write, to create, to say what we have to say as only we know how to say it,” he continued. “It is because we know we must do this together that we are only annoyed, rather than grateful, when people offer me a ticket to N.Y. as some have indeed attempted — without explaining, by the way, how my collaborator could ever be saved through this philanthropy.”

He assured Norman that he was not begging nor pleading. He said was merely making, “a statement of fact.”

“Two young artists of more than ordinary ability need immediate financial help in order not to perish,” he wrote. “In the name of art, of culture, of humanity in their deepest sense, this message must somehow be spread around where it will take effect at once, before it is too late.”

Hope came in the form of an inheritance. In September 1940, Peggram’s friend from Harvard, 25-year-old music student and aspiring concert pianist Montford Schley Variell, was found dead, according to The New York Times, “under mysterious circumstances” in his apartment. Lying face down, neatly wrapped from neck to feet in a blanket and sheet, Variell “had been dead for several days.” The police were not sure if he had committed suicide, died accidentally, or was murdered. Initially, the medical examiner declared his death a suicide by gas — the cause was later changed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Variell had a will and two life insurance policies that totaled $81,000, and he left money to several heirs, including $11,000 — worth approximately $160,000 in 2018 — to Peggram. This, he hoped, would be enough to get them both out of Europe. But the money would not be released to him unless he came home — without Hauptmann — to claim it.

Despite the legal obstacles, Peggram held out hope. In a letter dated April 9, 1941, he wrote to Norman: “Just how long it will take us to reach the U.S.A. still depends upon how soon acquaintances, consuls, attorneys, lawyers, etc. can experience sudden attacks of intelligence forceful enough to make them understand that we have been living here by necessity rather than by choice. But we know that even these will realize themselves in the end.”

After this, there were no more letters. Communications between Peggram and his friends and family stopped as, according to Peggram, he and Hauptmann were taken into a concentration camp at Bagni di Lucca, less than 50 miles from Florence.

* * *

When Peggram and Hauptmann told the story of their arrest to the Baltimore Afro-American, they did not mention homosexuality. They were taken into custody, they said, because the authorities felt “a Dane has no right to be a friend of a Negro.” After several days of interrogation, the Germans decided that Peggram would be permitted to leave German-occupied territory, but that Hauptmann, as the subject of a conquered country, would be compelled to join the German army. But, as the Afro-American put it, Peggram and Hauptmann “swore that whatever came, they would not break up.”

They were held at Bagni di Lucca until January 1944, when Allied planes gunned the camp, forcing the Germans to move their prisoners to another site. Over the next few months, the two men were shifted from camp to camp until they reached Piacenza, where Hauptmann was ordered to a German work camp. He refused to leave Peggram, whom the Germans would not compel to leave because, they said, “You are American.” The scholars were put in solitary confinement as the Germans pondered their fate.

“We didn’t know how long we stayed there, but it was really hell,” said Peggram. “Just enough soup to lead a miserable existence. For months we did not see a single human being. In fact, we saw nothing that was living. Not even bugs. There was no light, no action — nothing but a great deal of time to think about what was in store for us.”

Before their fate was decided, the camp was attacked by Italian partisans, who freed the prisoners and gave them shelter. Hauptmann and Peggram spent the rest of the year with the partisans, before striking out on their own in an attempt to reach the American lines.

“They found that all German-occupied territory was a prison,” wrote Johnson. “Without passports or other identification, their lives were worth less than when they were confined.”

Peggram and Hauptmann spent weeks hiking across country, once being shot at by German machine gunners, hiding with partisan families during the day and sleeping in barns at night. At last, they reached the 92nd Infantry Division, and were safe.

Peggram and Hauftman tell Lt. James Young how they escaped from a German concentration camp, Mar. 17, 1945. (Photo courtesy The Baltimore Afro-American Archives)

“They appeared to be as happy as two kids talking about what Santa Claus had brought them,” wrote Johnson. Although the reporter was initially skeptical of their story, there seems to be no reason to doubt Peggram and Hauptmann’s account of their imprisonment and escape. It is true that there was a camp at Bagni di Lucca, and that 16 miles away was another camp, Colle di Compito, that held citizens from the U.S., Great Britain and Denmark. Prisoners were often transferred between the two camps.

Peggram told Johnson, “We are not principally concerned with going to America. We only want to go some place where we can be assured remaining together to work in peace,” but Peggram returned to the U.S. alone, several months after encountering the 92nd Division. He departed Europe on the hospital ship Algonquin from Naples, Italy, arriving in Charleston, South Carolina, on August 14, 1945. He would not see Hauptmann again.

* * *

Upon his return to the U.S., Peggram was hospitalized for four years, the result, he said in a 1950 alumni newsletter, of a “nervous breakdown.” After his release, he returned to Boston to live in a multiple-family dwelling shared by his mother and half-brother. His existence was mainly solitary.

“My own postgraduate history is no particular triumph,” he wrote in a later class note. “Either I am too lazy or too comfortable (scarcely the latter) to function as a professional translator.”

According to these missives, he spent the rest of his life singing in Episcopal Church choirs, improving the “seven or eight” foreign languages he knew, and failing to convince a publisher to accept his “antique, revised, unpublished doctoral dissertation.” He died on April 20, 1982.

In 1971 Gerdh Hauptmann published a book of poems, Declaration, in English, by a Danish publisher. One poem, “Ante,” appeared to reference his relationship with Peggram. It began:

I remember once —
we were walking together,
perhaps in a year or two, you said,
and we made plans, and discussed
whether it should be in New York
— in Paris — or maybe
somewhere in China.

We did not know then —
although perhaps we did suspect it —
that the apples would not ripen
on the trees
that year
or the next
or ever.

Memoir

I Didn’t Know I Was Trans Until I Got Sober

When I stopped drinking, I finally realized the deep sadness I'd been trying to drown with alcohol was really gender dysphoria.

The sound of voices in the corridor outside roused me from my fitful sleep. The instant I forced my eyes open, the all-too-familiar feeling of dread gushed through my body. I winced as I leaned on my arm to heave myself upright. The fresh stitches on my forearm from my most recent self-harm tugged sharply. With blurry eyes, I squinted at the clock: 10:43 a.m. This meant I had to wait one hour and 17 minutes until I could have a drink. I never drank before midday; only alcoholics did that.

This hollow feeling of dread had been with me for as long as I could remember, continually gnawing away at my insides. I tried to explain it to my dad when I was about nine years old. All I could tell him was that I felt sick and that something was terribly wrong. My dad took me to a doctor who, of course, found nothing physically wrong with me.

Four-year-old me, with dirty knees, wearing my batman costume, 1978.

As a kid, I was obsessed with Robin Hood. I would strut around the garden wearing nothing but shorts and a tea towel cape tied around my neck. Grandad would chase me, hoist me onto his shoulders and spin me around like I was flying. It was one of the rare times that I would laugh with the reckless abandon of a typical child. I would grip tightly to his soft balding head and breathe in pipe tobacco and Old Spice as we spun. But as my teenage years approached, suddenly the chasing stopped. Grandad replaced my Robin Hood sword with hideously pink Sindy dolls in cocktail dresses. In his soft Birmingham lilt, he began to insist I “play quietly and sit properly.” I had no idea what “sitting properly” even meant.

As I got older, I began to understand the problem was that I wasn’t what people expected. I didn’t act like typical girls my age, and if it were left up to me, I wouldn’t dress like one either. The trouble was that as my body began to change, it became harder to find any clothes that I was comfortable in. Everything made me feel like there was too much of me. I began to restrict my food in an attempt to lose weight, but my body continued to grow in ways that repulsed me. My grandparents’ gifts started to include dresses, which I was obligated to wear when they visited. I couldn’t hide my disdain; I likely came across as a moody teenager. My grandad’s disappointment in me was evident. The gnawing emptiness was joined by an ever-growing sense of self-loathing.

When I discovered alcohol at the age of 13, it felt like I had found the holy grail. After I hurriedly swallowed a liter bottle of bitterly tart Merrydown cider, the sick feeling was suddenly replaced by a warm, soothing numbness. I felt as if I could breathe freely for the first time in my life.

* * *

I reached over to the bedside table, fumbling for my tobacco tin. My hand found cold metal, and I eagerly grabbed it, preparing to roll my first joint of the day. In my jumbled mind, smoking weed first thing in the morning was somehow O.K., even if drinking alcohol wasn’t. It wouldn’t send me into a blissful blackout, but it would at least take the edge off, enough to function until I could justify having a drink.

Me at my drinking peak, 2007.

I stared across the clothing-strewn floor to my desk, redundant now that I was no longer studying. A few years earlier, I had begun a social work degree. I was 32 years old and it was one of many attempts to get my life together. However, it was there I started to spiral out of control, and just 18 months into the program, my lead tutor suggested that I leave and seek out some help. I hadn’t been able to work since then, and things had continued to get worse. Alcohol no longer took away the feeling of dread, it just barely skimmed the edge off it. Crippling anxiety now accompanied the empty void of despair. I had resorted to self-harming by cutting my arms, in another desperate attempt to blank out the pain. My doctor prescribed medication, and I attended counseling sessions, but the answer as to why I felt like this, or what I could do to change it, never came.

I thought I’d come close to an explanation in my early 20s when I met Denise. I was living in Eastbourne at the time and working as a care assistant in a nursing home. On one early morning shift, Denise breezed into the canteen. My eyes locked onto her face, taking in her sharp angular jawline, which framed a broad cheeky smile. My eyes traveled to her exposed and glorious hairy legs. I mistook her for a man at first and was shocked to discover she was female. Nothing ever happened between us, but the fascination I felt toward her led me to assume that I must be a lesbian. It would explain so much: the tendency to be a tomboy, my lack of relating to anything female.

I then jumped into my lesbian identity with the enthusiasm of an Olympic diver. I had my hair cut short and spiky, and I filled my wardrobe with shirts and ties of every color imaginable. For a while I felt good. I entered into a serious relationship with a woman who loved my masculine ways. However, as the novelty of my reinvention wore off, the deep empty pit of despair returned with new strength. Eventually, my partner couldn’t handle my depression, and she left. It seemed being a lesbian wasn’t my answer after all.

* * *

I inhaled deeply on the joint. As the gray-brown tinged paper burnt closer to my yellow-stained fingers, I began to feel the subtle numbness take hold. Thoughts about trying to sort out my life were soon replaced with thoughts about buying alcohol. It was the weekend; it made sense to wait until Monday to start trying to get my life together. I pulled on the nearest pair of jeans I could find from the heap on the floor, threw on my khaki baseball cap to hide my shame, and headed out.

Being around other people was an anxious and paranoia-inducing ordeal. I hurriedly bought milk and ingredients to make chili rather than just purchasing alcohol. I noticed the wine was on a three-for-£10 deal. I decided it made logical monetary sense to buy all three. Anyway, l was only buying wine as I was having chili that evening. Wine is just something you have with chili — or so I told myself.

Me at my lowest weight while starting therapy, 2010.

The shop assistant did the usual double take when I replied “Thank you” in my high voice after he called me “Sir.” This was a common occurrence for me, and for reasons I could not understand, I really enjoyed it when I was mistaken for a man.

The chili remained unmade that evening, the pint of milk turned sour on the windowsill, Monday came and went.

Four months earlier, l had been discharged from a therapeutic community after completing a 12-month therapy program. There, they tried to teach me controlled drinking, which, based on the state of my life, seemed to have failed. It was clear to me that their therapy didn’t work, and I rang them up to tell them so.

“I’m not managing,” I complained to the receptionist, “I feel like therapy hasn’t helped at all.”

A week later, I met with my therapist, Gilly. Feeling at my wit’s end, for the first time in my life I was honest about the amount of alcohol I was drinking. Gilly looked up at me. A silver chain looped around the large glasses hanging from her neck swayed as gently as the cadence of her soft voice: “Perhaps it would be helpful to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.”

“I’m not an alcoholic!” I protested. “If I didn’t have these issues I wouldn’t need to drink.” Despite my protests, I agreed to try it.

The following Tuesday night, I hovered tentatively at the side door of Saint Mary’s Church in Oxford. I was met by a tiny and decidedly over-enthusiastic AA greeter who dragged me inside. The narrow room was furnished with a table at the far end, chairs around its outer walls, and an oval arrangement of chairs in the middle. I wondered if the inner circle was for members only. I had imagined a musty and somber room, but this room was alive with bright smiles and laughter.

The meeting began, and as people spoke, I was shocked to hear them describing the exact way that I felt. Yet, by following a sober life and completing the 12 steps, they had managed to find a happy life. I wanted that, but I could not accept I was an alcoholic. I knew I had a problem, but I was terrified of not being able to drink at all. However, the “one day at a time” approach of AA enabled me to cope with the idea of putting down the drink for a brief while. At my next meeting, I announced myself as having “alcohol dependency issues,” making sure to differentiate myself from the alcoholics.

The following weeks were hell on earth. Without the fuzzy haze of alcohol, the outside world became razor sharp, my internal world a raging waterfall of emotions. Then, finally, in one early morning AA meeting, I stopped fighting. I suddenly found myself announcing, “I am an alcoholic.” Those four words would change everything, but not in the way I expected.

* * *

Over the following months, my life changed dramatically. I remained sober, clean, and free from self-harm. Although the inner void was still there, I had learned healthy ways to manage the pain. I had even started to believe in a future where I could finally be free of it. I embraced facing difficult issues and the healing that came from that. One problem I could not seem to shake was my eating. I knew I wasn’t fat and yet the desire to restrict food was still there. It made no sense.

After sharing my eating issues in a meeting one day, I went for a coffee with Kevin, my AA best friend. We had a surprising amount of similarities in how we each struggled with feelings of shame about our bodies. Kevin leaned in, lowered his voice and asked me if he could trust me. I nodded. He took a deep breath and then, with a shaking voice, he told me that he dressed in female clothing at home. His honesty made me voice something I had only uttered a couple of times in my life: I wished I was male.

Dressing up for my first sober Christmas, 2010.

That evening, as I searched online for some support for my friend, I discovered the vast community of transgender people on YouTube. I had some knowledge of trans women but no idea that trans men existed. I found a video timeline of a trans guy celebrating a year on testosterone. He spoke about always knowing something wasn’t right, about his distress when his puberty began as his breasts grew and his hips developed. I watched his face light up as he described his growing sense of peace in himself as his face, voice, and body had changed. I suddenly had a moment of epiphany where I understood what was making me restrict food: Keeping very slim meant my figure more closely resembled that of a boy.

But I couldn’t be transgender, I thought; I would have surely known earlier in life. I apparently had some gender issues, wanting a boyish figure, enjoying wearing men’s clothes, so perhaps I fit the term genderqueer. In that case, I could alter my appearance a little, to see if that made me feel less ill-at-ease in myself. Watching numerous videos of trans men in early transition, I noticed that most used a “binder,” a vest made of a unique material to flatten their chests. I had been squeezing into a tight sports bra for years to get rid of the unsightly lumps. I ordered a binder, telling myself that it would just allow me to embrace more of my tomboy self.

The morning it arrived, I hungrily tore back the packaging. I squeezed myself into the skin-tight material, and violently shoved my sweaty breasts under my armpits, as per the instructions. I threw on the nearest T-shirt I could find and then stood back to study my appearance in the full-length mirror. I gasped, the realization like a punch to my stomach. There I was; that was my chest the way it should be. I understood at that moment that I was indeed male. I hadn’t realized earlier because when I was growing up, the words just were not available to describe what I had been feeling. There was a name for the pain I’d been feeling all this time: gender dysphoria.

I felt relief to finally know the reason for this pain, but enormous fear about what this meant. I would have to come out to my friends and family. I would have to go through the process of gender transition, and I didn’t even know where to begin with that. Everything was once again uncertain, the future terrifyingly unclear. For the first time in my life, I felt liked and accepted by people. I was convinced that if I said I was transgender I would lose the friendships I’d made, and likely my family, too. I was so afraid of the unknown future that I considered drinking again and this time not stopping until it killed me. Better that, I thought, than to face coming out and trying to lead a sober life as a man who would never be accepted as such.

I didn’t pick up a drink, but I did sink back into a state of despair and anxiety. Every time someone called my name or referred to me as “she” it was like a blow to my chest. I wanted to scream out that I was male. I wanted to tear my skin off and show people that I am here, that I’ve been here all along, underneath, and that the pain I felt was from years of suffocating the real me. Eventually, I reached a point where the pain of continuing to deny my male identity far outweighed the fear of what people might say to me when I announced it. I knew I just had to take a leap of faith.

Documents of my official name change after coming out as trans, 2012.

Being in Alcoholics Anonymous made coming out particularly challenging. Having to announce my name in meetings meant that there wasn’t a subtle way to slowly come out. I just had to do it, fast, like ripping off a Band-Aid. On a Friday morning, I walked into the church hall and was greeted by the familiar buzz of voices and the smell of fresh croissants and filter coffee. I said hello to a couple of people, but I was too nervous to do anything but take my seat and wait for the meeting to begin. The part of the meeting came where members were invited to share. I took a deep breath. My heart felt as if it was coming out of my chest and I could barely keep my head still for shaking.

“My name is Finn, and I am an alcoholic,” I announced.

Recent photo of me, 2018.

The usual response is to say hello back, but as this was not the name people were used to, I was greeted instead by “Hello,” followed by incoherent mumbling. I took another deep breath and went on to explain that I am transgender and would be grateful if people could use my new name and male pronouns when referring to me. The remaining 15 minutes of the meeting went painfully slowly, and I felt like I was going to throw up every one of my internal organs.

When the meeting ended, I was engulfed by a large crowd, hugging me, saying my new name, congratulating me and expressing their admiration. At that moment, I felt more loved and accepted than I ever had in my life. The joy at hearing myself referred to as “he” confirmed that I had made the right choice. As I went on to other meetings and told more people, the feeling of knowing this is right settled more deeply into my being. I moved from wishing I was a man to understanding that I already was one — one that needed a few modifications, but a man all the same.

I am now approaching eight years sober and clean, and it’s been six-and-a-half years since I announced the truth of who I am. This morning I awoke to the familiar feeling of gratitude and possibility. I jumped out of bed heading for the bathroom, and the hallway mirror stopped me in my tracks. I paused to smile back at the man with the graying sideburns and white flecks in his full beard. I made a cup of tea and settled into my well-worn desk chair, preparing for a day of writing work and university degree study.

Hidden History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Hazel Scott at the age of three or four.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

 

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

Scott at the age of nineteen.

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

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

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

How could Scott refuse?

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

“Hello,” she coos, “I’m Hazel Scott.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memoir

Secret Life of an Autistic Stripper

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

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

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

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

“You go,” she said, waving her hand.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. I’m struggling,” I said shyly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“I am sorry, what?” I asked.

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

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

“Not at all. What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hennessy is a strong choice,” he commented.

“It’s an underrated drink.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Within minutes, responses flooded that my symptoms resembled ASD.

“What is ASD?” I asked.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never said stripping was glamorous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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