Category Archives: Volume 1

Cosmic Postcards: The Adventures of an Armchair Astronaut

My eye was jammed to the biggest telescope that I’ve seen in my life, up on the roof of Columbia University’s Pupin Hall. I was looking at three absurdly bright points of light in a nebulous gas cloud that I was told represented stars. Stars being born, to be precise. After I heard that I lingered a little longer and had the indentation of the eyepiece mold around my eye when I stepped back.

It was just another instance of the universe blowing me away and the start of my mission to learn more about space.

Brian Cox is the man responsible for my fixation with Space. He’s the host of many BBC television and radio programs including the spectacular Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System series.

Until he came around, I was somewhat interested in the cosmos. I’d read all five Douglas Adams books in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (don’t roll your eyes, fiction still counts), I’d look up at the sky trying to pick out stars in the halo of Bombay’s orange lights and I’d sort of follow the space shuttle launches. But growing up in India, with a nascent though promising space program, I wasn’t spellbound by the universe.

Then I watched Wonders of the Solar System. Somehow, through my TV, Cox managed to get me as enamored as he was with what’s up there. Being a space ignoramus, everything he said was new to me.

Using an abandoned prison in Rio de Janeiro as a metaphor for a dying star, he broke down the chemical reactions that take place during the penultimate stages. What comes out of these reactions is carbon and oxygen, among other things—the same carbon that’s in you, in me, in our iPads and in everything else on this planet. So Carl Sagan was right when he said, “we are made of star stuff.”

Cox explained how Saturn’s rings are made up of ice particles, some smaller than a centimeter. He talked about Cassini, NASA’s robotic probe sent to study Saturn and its surroundings. And I was hooked.

How couldn’t I be? The 35-year-old Voyager spacecraft, older than me, has almost reached the end of our solar system and is still going further out into the unknown. And some of the stars we see at night might already be dead, but they’re so far away that their light is still traveling to reach us.

The possibilities are endless. We’re never going to know everything about space; we’re never going to explore every part of it. Given how controlling humans as a species are, that should put us off exploration. And yet, its vastness and secrets inspire awe, intrepidness and serious courage in a few.

Sadly, I’m lacking in the last component. But that doesn’t mean I can’t stay down here and soak up everything I can find on the subject. Even though I have a Google alert for “Space” and my Twitter feed is filled with cosmological tweets, I still wanted to know more.

So I set out on a mission that began with the telescope at Columbia. I spoke to an astronaut who’s had so many memorable moments in space he couldn’t pick one. And to a research psychologist who thinks about what color to paint the signs around the docking ports of the International Space Station. Then there was the anthropologist in Canada who studies the science of looking for extraterrestrials.

I interviewed an artist who set up installations that captured the sounds of the Sun and Jupiter, a NASA trainer who prepares astronauts for space by creating simulations in an underwater habitat and a food scientist who worries about vegan astronauts on long-term missions to Mars.

And what I learned from them only made me more curious about the Big Black Beyond.

Kathryn Denning spends a lot of time studying scientists who think about aliens. Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Canada, is fascinated by the idea of The Other in relation to humans. Her recent research has focused on how scientists think about the evolution of intelligence in relation to hypothetical extraterrestrials, ethical difficulties and the future of the human colonization of Space.

A big reason we’re so drawn to space, she told me, is “its importance in traditional culture.” We all share the experience of looking up at the stars and trying to make sense of it all. “It tends to get intertwined with the heavens and Heaven and we think of it as a place of revelations and knowledge and dreams,” Denning said.

What is behind the search for those from other worlds varies with who is doing the searching. Scientists, for instance, search for what they consider extensions of theories of evolution, while others search for spiritual reasons. Denning and her colleagues think a lot about how humans would react when confronted with extraterrestrials. Carl Sagan, for one, thought interacting with aliens would be a character-building experience. “And then there are those who believe it could become an Earth versus Aliens situation,” she said. To say nothing of the realization that humans are not the center of the universe.

There is also the enduring wonder of what those beings might actually look like and how intelligent they might be, which Denning and her colleagues have thought about. Denning noted that the usual SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, an exploratory science) expectation is that because the only way of communicating across interstellar distances is via radio signals or laser pulses, the only kind of distant life form we could detect would be one who could build a transmitter — and that this suggests that they’d have to have hands or the functional equivalent.

Aliens with appendages building radios. Allow that to sink in for a minute.

Our visual system evolved to help us navigate on foot, but we’ve moved on from carts and cars to planes and now spaceships. On Earth, our inner ear helps us differentiate between up and down. But in space, in Zero Gravity, humans must rely on their eyes to orient themselves. Which works only up to a point. That’s where Dr. Mary Kaiser comes in.

Kaiser, a research psychologist with NASA, works with engineers to develop better ways to share important information, like distance and acceleration, and make it easier for astronauts to process during missions. One of the problems Kaiser faced occurred in the earliest moments of space travel – during the colossally powerful vibrations of lift-off, when astronauts struggled to read information on a computer screen.

Kaiser was working on the booster rockets for the Orion Capsule, when she discovered that although each astronaut reacted differently during lift-off, based on their head shapes and neck muscles, “whatever they were doing was around the frequency of the vibration, about 12 times a second,” she told me. “So we came up with a display that would strobe at the same frequency so that your head would be in the same position every cycle and the blur of the display disappears.”

Then there is the problem of harsh illumination in space. On Earth we can still see what’s in the shadows, even dimly. But in space, like on the Moon, if something’s in the shadows it’s pretty much invisible. Kaiser told me how careful consideration was given to the Sun’s angle when astronauts were landing on the Moon. “You wanted an angle that gave you enough of a definition of all the craters and rocks, so you didn’t want the Sun right overhead. But then you didn’t want it so low that you got only shadows.”

These deliberations were in addition to things like where windows on space shuttles should be placed and what color the signs around docking ports should be, which just goes to show how much planning goes into planning a mission.

Vickie Kloeris worries about keeping astronauts happily fed. As a NASA food scientist and manager of the Flight Food Systems, her job is to devise ways to extend the shelf life of, say, shrimp cocktail – and by extend, I mean for up to 6 months and longer.

Then there’s the matter of making food taste good in an environment with little or no gravity. In space shuttles, for instance, astronauts live for extended periods in micro-gravity, which means their bodily fluids move to their head and upper parts of the body. This makes them congested, as if they have colds. And that, in turn, affects the way the food tastes.

The fact that the astronauts are eating from packages rather than plates impedes the way the food smells, which plays a big part in its taste. Add to that a closed setting with many other odors and a micro-gravity environment that keeps heat from rising and carrying aromas to the nose. Given these circumstances and astronaut reports that their sense of taste is numbed, Kloeris isn’t surprised by the requests for hot sauce, garlic paste and wasabi.

While taste is always on her mind, the nutritional effects of the food matter, too. Kloeris’ most recent project was trying to reduce the content of sodium in the astronauts’ diets. While it was known that a high sodium diet aggravates bone loss, a common side effect of spaceflight, “We’ve had reports of some crew members on the International Space Station saying they experienced increased intercranial pressure. That has manifested itself as vision issues for some,” Kloeris told me, because of pressure on the optic nerve. While the bone loss, per se, doesn’t especially worry Kloeris’ team—astronauts regain what they lose once they come back to Earth—that isn’t the case with vision. Whatever visual acuity is lost in space stays lost.

As if these challenges weren’t enough, Kloeris has had to deal with the personal dietary preferences of astronauts too. Kosher and Halal are out of the question since the NASA food facilities aren’t designed to support these religiously based diets. The vegetarians and vegans on shorter space shuttles haven’t been too difficult, although their choice was restricted. So far, there hasn’t been a vegetarian astronaut who stayed for six months on the International Space Station. But, Kloeris said, when the day comes that would be a “huge, huge challenge.” And as for vegans—“That would be even worse.”

You may not know it, but at some point in your life you’ve heard the Sun. Yes, heard the Sun. Before today’s fancy digital radios, in the days of physically turning knobs to tune to the right station, you’d encounter a lot of static or white noise. That is usually attributed to interference from other electronic and radio signals in the vicinity, but a part of that is from a little further away.

Thanks to a field of science called radio astronomy space now has a soundtrack. As if the pictures weren’t enough to blow your mind, you can now hear the Sun and Jupiter and in the future, possibly even black holes.

My introduction to radio astronomy was through a TED talk given by New Zealand artist Honor Harger a couple of years ago. She was part of a group of artists called radioqualia, who created sound sculptures and sound art compositions during most of the first decade of the 2000s. In 2004, the group set up installations that allowed people to hear objects in space. But the first space sounds were heard a little over 135 years ago. By accident, as Harger explained in her talk.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson were working on the telephone. Part of their setup was a length of charged wire, draped over the roofs of Boston that carried the telephone signal. Only, it caught something else, too. When Watson was listening, he heard a whole array of snaps, crackles, pops, whistles, and hisses.

The reason this was so strange was because it wasn’t coming from humans. We were still a little over 20 years away from Marconi’s first radio transmission, so these sounds were coming from nature. Some of it was lightning and other surrounding sounds, but there were certain noises that Watson correctly guessed were coming from elsewhere. He had, in fact, inadvertently “dialed into space,” Harger said.

As time went on, technological advancements helped spawn the field of radio astronomy and refined it to today’s age where we can pick out solar flares on the Sun and hear Cassini being bombarded by the ice particles that make up Saturn’s rings.

“The Sun is, by far, the loudest radio object in our sky,” Harger told me over Skype. It’s a big nuclear furnace that emits frequencies that can be picked up in all parts of the electro- magnetic spectrum. “It’s very loud on the short wave band of the radio, which is what we use for communications on Earth,” she said. Hence, you’ve heard it as part of the white noise between tuning radio stations. Advanced radio telescopes now allow scientists to eliminate the noise coming from local disturbances and focus on just the Sun.

Jupiter isn’t as noisy. Harger explained, “What we pick up is conversations between Jupiter and its moon, Io.” Usually, two types of radiations are picked up in these noise storms—long bursts that sound like ocean waves breaking on a beach and short bursts that sound like popcorn popping or “someone throwing pebbles onto a tin roof,” she said.

The reason we can hear these far away objects better than, say sounds from neighboring Mars, is because they’re made up of gases. Mars is described as a “rocky planet” while Jupiter is a “gas giant, made up of really hot, swirling gas,” Harger said. What this gas emits is energized particles and radio waves, much more than what a rocky planet would send out.

The sounds are audible through any good radio antennae, and a short wave receiver that can pick up waves in the frequency of 20MHz. It helps to be away from a city to avoid terrestrial electronic interference.

And since radio waves travel like light waves, you might be able to pick up sounds from the Big Bang, just like the scientists at the Bell Laboratory who, in 1965, first heard the cosmic radiation left over from about 13.8 billion years ago. If you’re lucky, that’ll be the oldest sound you’ll ever hear.

NASA does its best to train astronauts for every possible scenario they could face up in space. A boring mission is a successful mission because everything goes according to plan.

As part of his role with the Analog Project Office, Marc Reagan creates simulations and scenarios that test crew members and flight teams to their limits. With just their imagination and discussions with the scientific community to work with, Reagan and his team build exercises that focus on the crew’s weaknesses to “ultimately increase the odds of a successful flight,” in his words.

The closest thing NASA had to a Zero-G environment was the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. It’s a pool that holds 6.2 million gallons of water and allows astronauts to practice scheduled procedures on submerged mockups of orbiting structures in safety. But it wasn’t exactly like the real thing.

One thing that stumped Reagan was how crew members, who performed complex procedures to perfection multiple times during their training, experienced a moment of forgetfulness during an actual mission. He always wondered why they chose the day they were in space to make a mistake. “When you have tasks going on in extreme environments, a portion of your brain has to be dedicated to everyone’s safety,” he told me. “That means you’re operating on less capacity on the tasks at hand, which leads to errors.” Those elements of a real mission were missing from the training.

Reagan and his colleague Bill Todd, the NASA Extreme Environment Missions Operations (NEEMO) Project Manager, saw this vacuum and brainstormed ways to fill it. “Bill observed that this is just a simulation and the lessons may not sink in,” Reagan said. At the end of the day you go home and there’s no real consequence. This is very different from a real mission where you don’t get to choose your fellow crew members, or get a second shot to try something.

Todd was aware of a U.S. underwater habitat, Aquarius, owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the waters of the Florida Keys. He proposed that astronauts be allowed to live in the habitat to get a complete feel for what the mission might be like – social dynamics and all.

The first underwater mission was a success, with astronauts and authorities, and led to several more. It fit NASA’s requirements perfectly, since the habitat already had the infrastructure in place like computer networks, high-speed communication links, and boats to carry equipment out to Aquarius. And so the NEEMO program was born.

“What a NEEMO mission teaches you is how to live off a timeline every day, how to finish one event on time to get to the next one and then the next one on schedule,” Reagan said. “There’s very little margin for error… and if there’s a malfunction then you have to deal with that on top of your timeline, having to completely re-plan your day,” he explained. The pace of living like that, day after day, can become exhausting and stressful. Just what astronauts can expect on a real mission.

Reagan shared an anecdote of what it is trainers try and do – anticipate the improbable and be as prepared as they can be: For the Apollo 11 mission, the first one to land on the moon, the computers experienced situations during training when an information overload would cause them to release an abort code. Most of the time when the computers said to abort the landing, that was the prudent and correct thing to do. But in this one exception, it was safe to continue. Granted these computers were not even as powerful as most cell phones today, but the last thing you want when you’re about to create history is a hiccup.

Fortunately, an enterprising training instructor at NASA studied the problem, and presented it during a simulation. Though at first it was treated as farfetched, the flight controller responsible for the computers during landing took the time to study the case in detail.
As luck would have it, during the actual landing “they got one of these codes and the obvious thing to do was to say we have to abort the landing,” Reagan narrated. But because of the training the flight controller could confidently tell the flight director to proceed and the rest is history. “It was that close to calling off the first moon landing,” he said, “and you would never know the name Neil Armstrong.”

Once you get used to the floating that is life in space you start worrying about more mundane things. Like losing stuff.

“Flat surfaces and gravity keep us organized, it’s a wonderful thing,” Dr. Stephen Robinson, a veteran of four space shuttle missions, told me. The organizational overload in space, having to keep track of every tiny instrument for long periods of time can be mentally tiring and frustrating.

But that is more than offset by the singular thrill of going around the Earth every 90 minutes. One thing that caught Robinson by surprise was how stars are colored slightly differently. He knew that they’re of different temperatures and compositions, but no one had ever told him to expect the different colors. “There are pockets of darkness but the Milky Way is just amazing, very well named,” he recalled.

Another thing Robinson saw a lot of was the Northern Lights. “I’ve only ever seen it from Space and it is the most amazing, beautiful and spooky looking thing,” he said. That isn’t hard to believe – imagine seeing a blanket of dancing green waves over miles of the Earth, like a force field.

Robinson’s childhood heroes were the early astronauts. Now 57, he used to build and test his own gliders as a boy. They often crashed a lot, but luckily he never ended up in the emergency room.

The greater risks, of course, came as he prepared to venture into Space. “Finding a place in your brain where you can accept that risk and then use it to your advantage,” he said, “to make yourself sharper and quicker thinking, that’s the trick.” He recalls that in the moments before lift-off feeling “like the luckiest person ever—my dream was about to come true. It wasn’t a time to be worried but a time to be thankful.”

He laughed when I asked how space made him feel. “It makes you realize that no matter how big your burden is the Universe doesn’t really care that much,” he said. “That kind of makes you more relaxed.”

I wanted to know about his first moments in Space, whether he recalled unbuckling his safety belt. “Oh heck yeah!” he said. “Everyone remembers that.” Multiple training flights on reduced gravity aircrafts, less affectionately called vomit comets by those with a queasy disposition, had given Robinson a feel for a Zero-G environment, but it wasn’t very similar to the real thing.

“You aren’t in a big open airplane, but a cramped spaceship. And it doesn’t last 30 seconds but two weeks,” he told me. The space suit now floats on your body and that ladder that you used to climb during training? You can just float up and down it now. This is sort of what you’d experience when you enter a Zero-G environment. First you take off your helmet and take a few seconds to process that the helmet is floating in front of you instead of falling like a rock. When you unbuckle you’d probably be popped out of your seat, “like a spring”.

The first thing Robinson did was get hold of his camera. He slowed down when he was sharing this part, as if he were reliving the moment – “The Shuttle was upside down facing the Earth’s oceans in the daylight. When I looked up that ladder at the two windows on the top of the Shuttle, there was this intense blue light that was reflecting off the ocean and coming down like a shaft of light that I just floated right up into. It was like a dream.”

Even after all these experiences Robinson is still spellbound by the cosmos, saying, “I guess humans just want what they can see but can’t experience. When you see a mountain you want to know what’s on the other side, it’s just the way we are.”

I’m back on the roof of Columbia. The queue to the biggest telescope was long, it seemed like people were taking their own time with this one. Finally I got my turn and looked at a huge ball of light surrounded by two or three tinier lights. I prepared myself for the astronomer’s description of what I was looking it. Just Jupiter and its moons, he said.

Just Jupiter and its moons. Wow.

Life, Love and Neurosurgery

Michael Schulder once removed a tumor on a patient’s pituitary gland. Not technically part of the brain, the gland, which regulates hormonal levels, is located at the base of the organ and right behind the optic chiasm, the part of the brain where the optic nerves partially cross. That day, Schulder performed the surgery through a transnasal approach, a minimally invasive procedure whereby the surgeon makes a small incision in the back wall of the nose. After making the cut, he entered the sphenoid sinus, situated behind the bridge of the nose. For this surgery, the sinus constituted Schulder’s tunnel for reaching the tumor. But once he made it there, he discovered he had “limited exposure” and accidentally poked his surgical instrument too far in.

The clock in the operating room was ticking, but time froze, and Schulder with it. His unshaken hands had slipped and for several minutes left him hanging, anxiously. Later he would recall it feeling like an eternity. His instrument was stuck on the optical nerve. He understood that his hands had to do the right thing, or else he would blind his patient.

“I didn’t say anything to anyone,” Schulder said. “When things are at their hardest, that is when I have to be the calmest. But my heart was in my mouth.” He eventually made the right move, and his patient woke up tumor-free and with his sight untouched.

Schulder is a neurosurgeon at the North Shore Hospital on Long Island. When he decided to make a profession out of brain matters, he effectively committed to two careers: that of a scientist who celebrates the inner manifestations of the organ through a lifetime of research and that of a mechanic who fixes it when it’s broken.

The brain haunts him, but not all the time. It remains for Schulder a feast of wonders, a complex organ that, despite all the scientific advances in knowledge as to its workings, retained much of its mystery. To Schulder, and to so many of his peers, that mystery is exquisite. But to do his job, and to do it well, Schulder has to be tough and confident. That is because the brain, soft as it may be, is never easy on him.

Neurosurgery as it is practiced today is a young and small domain established in the late 19th century by a bold and tough man with a prestigious academic background. To this day, neurosurgeons have kept their realm at the top of the medical world. They have maintained their pedigree, gathering around the idea that they stand above all physicians. They have embraced a reputation of narcissism and austerity, a historical sameness in which the character of neurosurgeons goes unchanged and unchallenged. While each medical specialty adheres to its own stereotypes, this is a phenomenon particularly true to neurosurgery, says Deborah Benzil, one of the few female neurosurgeons in the United States. “People feel more comfortable training people that are like them,” she said. “If they are tough, and the only successful neurosurgeons they know are tough, anyone who isn’t tough won’t fit. This tends to perpetuate a certain culture or a certain personality. But is there really a personality that makes the best neurosurgeons?”

My husband, Teddy, once wanted to be part of the neurosurgical elite, but he never will. Not that he wasn’t bold or tough. He had a thick skin and the confidence that most neurosurgeons possess, which translated into steady hands, a gift noted by his mentors. But he was never much of a megalomaniac and, most importantly the brain, while an interest of his, wasn’t what he wanted his life to revolve around.

Teddy saw the brain for the first time in his early twenties. He was an undergraduate at the time and worked as a pharmacy technician at his hometown hospital, in Bloomington, Illinois. He befriended neurosurgeons and eventually got to see them save the life of a 35-year-old woman who had a bulging aneurysm in her brain. It was a ticking bomb, a balloon filled with too much air, and without the surgery it would have popped, causing her to bleed and die.

“I was captivated,” Teddy told me. “I wanted to make that kind of difference in people’s lives. I had been on the fence about going to medical school, but after that experience, I was set upon going and becoming a neurosurgeon – to be the one taking care of this woman.”

Teddy’s favorite organ, however, was the heart. Yet when it came to unraveling mysteries, the human mind stole all his intention. He liked the brain’s color – the pearly white shade, as he described it. He talked about it as a thing of beauty, as a dazzling work of electrical engineering. He loved to see it pulsate in syncopation with each beat of the heart. But most importantly, Teddy wanted to save lives, and to do it where the stakes are high, where life hangs in the balance, and where he would have no choice but to stand steady in the face of death.

Like most aspiring neurosurgeons, he took some time off of school to do research in the field. A month before his research came to an end, however, Teddy had doubts. He saw a prominent neurosurgeon ask one of his students to pick up his children from school because the surgery he was conducting took longer than he had originally planned. He saw residents too exhausted to continue on with their training. He saw others sticking with it, but dissolving into bitterness. He attended conferences and Christmas parties where the holiday spirit faded into brain talk. The brain was already lurking in every conceivable corner of his life, making him realize that neurosurgeons had no other choice but to eat, breathe, and sleep neurosurgery and relegate everything else in life to second place.

So when he met with his mentor in the summer of 2009, Teddy asked for advice. His mentor told him that if he couldn’t be happy with neurosurgery alone, if he couldn’t give up the 14-mile runs he did for fun, if he couldn’t let go of his guitar, and if he wasn’t okay with the possibility of losing me to the harsh and demanding world of neurosurgery, then he wouldn’t be happy.

To him, Teddy had too bright of a soul, and if not ready to marry the brain, for better or for worse, that soul would be darkened.

I couldn’t help but wonder, why did he say this? What world was he protecting Teddy from?

I got to meet a few neurosurgeons when Teddy was still doing research. My encounters with them remained quick and in the realm of small talks, and my understanding of who they were superficial. They seemed self-assured, their posture upright and handshakes strong. They talked only about the brain, in spite of themselves it seemed, as though neurosurgery came with an endless loop of talk of tumors and strokes. As brain talks bounced from one gathering to the next, I realized that marrying a neurosurgeon meant that I would have to battle against the brain for even a little of his attention.

My second encounter with the field came later, through books dissecting the lives of neurosurgeons – many of which were written by neurosurgeons themselves. Many of these books did not limit themselves to the everyday routines of the neurosurgeon’s life. Instead they toured the labyrinth that is the human brain, as if to remind me that it is indeed all they think about. As Katrina Firlik wrote in her memoir, “The issue of the brain texture is on my mind all the time. Why? I am a neurosurgeon. The brain is my business.”

As it turned out, nearly all of these autobiographies and personal accounts of and by neurosurgeons shared another guiding spirit: the tale of the pioneer of modern-day neurological surgery and nastiest surgeon known to the field, Harvey Cushing.

Cushing died at the age of 70, most likely from a heart attack. Despite being a husband and father of five, he spent most of his life in the operating room. He was, by all accounts, a hostile and unsociable man who would scowl at anyone and anything standing in the way of his success. He was a poor loser, was often cruel to his subordinates in the name of perfection, and to this day endures as the embodiment of a tradition of abusive surgical training.

“He was a nasty person,” Schulder said. “He was a genius and a demanding pioneer who was willing to try things that no one else did. He would take on the worst clinical cases. You have to have a pretty tough ego and a strong stomach to do that. And you sure have to be total megalomaniac.”

Cushing’s curriculum vitae might have been the spine of his ego. After graduating from Yale University, he studied medicine at Harvard Medical School, did his internship at Massachusetts General Hospital, and completed his residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Thereafter, he worked incessantly, to the limit of his strength and beyond. He lived for and by the brain, so much so that when he learned about one of his sons’ death, he informed his wife and continued with the operation he was about to perform.

Cushing now lies underground, at Lake View Cemetery, in Cleveland, and, despite his nastiness, rests in most neurosurgeons’ hearts as the man to look up to. He was eager to pass on his knowledge and break in new people. His pupils were, in a sense, the surrogate children that he bred in his own image. And thus was born the proud and stoic family of neurosurgeons.

When I arrived at Café Lalo, Schulder, the first neurosurgeon I met since my husband changed career paths, was already there, still standing up and diligently folding his brown coat before draping it on the back of his chair. I was a minute late; he was obviously on time. He remained up and inquisitive, giving me a steady stare as I zigzagged my way through the crowd of patrons. We shook hands rather firmly, sat down rather quickly, and without further ado started to recount the tale of his career.

Schulder was redolent of the past, as he talked more about Cushing’s surgical prowess than he did his own. In many ways, he even seemed to have carried on with Cushing’s philosophies and ways of life. This may be no coincidence, as he is (and prides himself for being) his surgical great-grandson – something my husband’s mentor also took pride in. “I was trained by a surgeon who was trained by a surgeon who was trained by Cushing,” Schulder said with a subtle hesitation on when to stop. Cushing and he aren’t blood, but his excitement when going up the genealogical tree suggests they may as well be.

Much like his forebear, Schulder seemed abstemious. All he wanted for brunch was muesli with yogurt and fresh fruit. He is a simple man when it comes to food, he confessed. He avoided any topics that made him squirm, like death, and when he talked about his own surgical cases, he kept coming back to his most challenging, but successful ones. To him, the long hours spent in the hospital, while exhausting and painful, are an inevitable testament to his commitment to his patients. Working less, he said, is caring less. But a neurosurgeon also ought to be tough and shouldn’t abide by, as he called it, “all that mushy gushy stuff” that patients can get from other members of the hospital staff, like nurses, pediatricians or other physicians on the case.

“It’s not bad for me to be sympathetic,” he said. “But it’s a distraction. It’s much better for my patient that I spend all the time I can taking out a tumor than it is for me to hold hands.”

Schulder pokes at brains that have been pushed around by tumors, or blood clots, or strokes. The brains he sees are at their most vulnerable; and it’s when brains are at their most vulnerable that he needs to be at his strongest.

“You have to have a strong stomach,” said Schulder. “You have to deal with some bad problems. Most of them, hopefully, are not of your own making. But at some point, some of them are of your own making and then, what are you going to do? Are you going to quit? Are you going to crawl into a fetal position and never emerge from your room? You can. But in the end, everyone can have complications, and you have to learn from them, become a better surgeon, and move on.”

Like my husband, it took Schulder one glimpse at the brain and one surgery to get hooked. But he had to go through a rigorous training to learn toughness. During the seven-year long tunnel of medical residency, his bosses yelled and stomped their feet; hours never ended and sleep never seemed to come; he taught himself to love coffee because it was the only thing that made it all sweeter. To make his marks, Schulder had to show confidence. He had to grab the scalpel, take the lead, and talk back to the physicians in charge. Only then would he gain the respect of his peers.

He married during his third year of residency, but any other semblance of life that didn’t fit with his scrubs was an afterthought. Sleeplessness left him in a recurrent haze. He dozed off at the dinner table and behind the steering wheel. He worked 100 hours a week, if not more, and quickly understood that his spare time was just for sleep.

After those seven years Schulder graduated from the status of apprentice and in time became more than a neurosurgeon. He is now a teacher, a researcher, a committee member and an editor for a neurosurgical journal. His curriculum vitae fills over 50 pages, and a snippet of it – framed diplomas, prizes, and awards – hangs on his office’s largest wall as a brash reminder of his accomplishments.

On April 8, 2013, I spent the day at the hospital with Schulder, trying to catch through his office window as much sunlight as I could. When not in his office, I was under the bright, artificial lights that traveled through the hospital’s hallways into the patients’ rooms and into the operating room.

That day, I didn’t see the sunrise, nor did I see the sunset. But I did, for the first time, see the human brain. It was not quite as pearly as my husband had described it. Rather, it was more of a salmon pink fading here and there into a greyish white and looked very much like a chewed piece of gum – at least the part that I saw from the tiny incision that Schulder made during his operation.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that in being a competent neurosurgeon, timeliness was of the essence, but hastiness wasn’t. As Cushing once wrote, “There should be a legal penalty imposed for speeding in brain surgery.”

Schulder entered his OR – room 8 – at 7:30 a.m. sharp. The surgery that he was about to perform, a deep brain stimulation, which aims at treating patients with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, was going to last six hours, he warned me. His patient had writer’s tremors, which means that he couldn’t write – not even his name. Every time he tried to grasp a pen with enough strength to write something onto a page, his hand would convulse capriciously from left to right, drafting clumsy, childlike doodles. Schulder planned on making him write by introducing electrodes that would fire electrical charges deep into his brain and stimulate the nerves responsible in regulating abnormal impulses.

To do that, the patient had to have his head screwed to a thick, coppery frame, which was shaped like a drum shell, but looked more like a torturous device. He was awake through the entire surgery, but was sedated and locally anesthetized. So the screws digging into his forehead didn’t seem to bother him as much as they bothered me. The frame was then attached to the bed to keep his head stock-still.

The patient kept going back and forth from mumbling to snoring. When the anesthesiologist placed a catheter up his urethra, he instantly woke up from his doze. He had to pee, he said, which the anesthesiologist swiftly dismissed as a natural response to the clear tube traveling bladder-bound. Somewhat reluctantly, the patient made peace with his urge, or the illusion of it, and went back to rest.

The preparation was the part of the surgery that felt the longest. But it was also the part that smelled the best. There was so much antiseptic product involved, it smelled like those sanitizing hand wipes that people get after eating oysters. Once Schulder and his resident drilled the skull open, however, a cloud of fumes formed above the patient’s head, and a whiff of burning flesh crept up on my nostrils. That stink was, thankfully, the goriest part of the surgery and didn’t last for too long.

Schulder and everybody else barely spoke throughout the surgery, letting the EKG machine monitoring the patient’s heart rate set the mood. It was as if they had rehearsed, as if everybody knew exactly where to stand or what to do. There was a mechanical composure to every move involved, which made the operating room feel like a safe place to be. The scrub nurse passed the instruments to Schulder; the resident suctioned out the blood to better Schulder’s visibility; and the anesthesiologist, who was the only one able to sit down for most of the operation, made his eyes sway from the anesthetic machine to the heart monitoring machine, making sure that the patient remained stable and in a sufficient daze.

Once the electrodes were placed, they woke the patient, asked him to write his name and draw a spiral, and simultaneously made him talk to check for any speech impairment or other damage that the electrodes, if misplaced, could have caused to the brain. That was the most crucial part of the surgery. Everyone but Schulder – the scrub nurse, the resident, and the anesthesiologist – stared at the patient’s hand. Schulder kept his eyes on the screen that showed the depth of the electrodes. At first, the patient’s hand was still shaking and producing scribbles, so Schulder had to slide the electrodes a tad deeper. And after a few trials, the patient’s hand stopped shaking; the spiral started to look like a spiral; and his name like his name.

The success of the operation was welcomed, if at all, with little enthusiasm and little more interaction, as if it were normal, or even expected. The team was happy with the results, but still had to introduce a pacemaker into their patient’s chest, which, connected to the brain by a thin wire traveling up from the chest into the neck and to the head, would monitor the electrical charges that the electrodes would fire up. This required another surgery, which was scheduled three weeks later. All that was left to do was to close up the scalp and free the patient of the torturous frame, which Schulder allowed his resident to do before he left the operating room and changed back into his business suit.

Aside from surgeries, Schulder does the rest of his job – mainly seeing and checking on patients – garbed in a suit. Scrubs, he tells me, just don’t look professional enough. He took me along with him to visit some of his most critical patients. He quickly fell back into the hard reality of being a neurosurgeon, which that day lay unconscious four floors below his office, in one of the beds of the hospital’s oncology department.

Many of the patients there hung between life and death, and the entire floor was sinking in a confused limbo where an overall sentiment of hope mingled with an excruciating anticipation of loss. The cacophony of beeping from all the patients’ EKG machines instilled a feeling of chaos, reminding me that some patients were probably running out of time.

Schulder’s patient was one of them. She was a 45-year old woman with a brain tumor that grew too fast and took over her body, leaving her with multiple blood clots and too little energy to stay awake. Once we entered her room, Schulder explained to her husband that he was, for once, too late, that the surgery was too risky and pointless. She had, he informed him bluntly, a few days to live.

“You have to take it to the most practical narrow, focused question,” Schulder said. “If you ask me whether the surgery should happen today, my short answer is no. It wouldn’t be good to anyone.”

Silence broke and time stopped, letting the beeping of the patient’s heart monitoring machine deepen the agony that had already permeated the room. Throughout his conversation with his patient’s husband, Schulder showed compassion, but remained distant. He knew he had to let go because while he has to know about everything that can go wrong and everything that he can do to fix it, he also has to relinquish the mechanic in him and, in the face of a tragedy, know how to do nothing.

“You have to separate what’s in the hand of God and what’s in the hand of man,” he said. “It may be painful to watch, but you have to learn what you can from it, do your work, and move on.”

I don’t know if Schulder saw his wife that night. But after a 13-hour workday, he and I didn’t head to our respective homes right away. Rather, we met with 16 fellow neurosurgeons for dinner and stayed at the restaurant until about 10:30 p.m.

They didn’t talk much about the brain. But they didn’t talk about much else either. Rather, they talked about themselves and where they and their field stood in the world of medicine. They were, they said, still the jewels of hospitals and needed to demonstrate the worth of their procedures, to figure out a way, as one of them put it, “to have [hospitals] value [them] more than just for [their] good looks.”

As he drove home, Schulder confessed that some of the surgeries that were once exclusive to neurosurgeons are now shifting into the hands of other physicians. Orthopedic surgeons, for example, get to operate on the spine as long as they complete a spine fellowship. Just like radiologists that do additional training in endovascular techniques and are able to repair aneurysms; some orthopedic surgeons have become hybrid physicians, to which neurosurgeons are increasingly losing some of their most valuable surgeries. Ultimately, Schulder and his peers concluded that they would be fine, that all they needed to do was to follow what they loved rather than the money. The job market for neurosurgeons, they said, had never been better.

“I’ve heard this speech for so long,” Schulder said. “Twenty-five years ago, when I was finishing my training, one of my attendings told me that there was no job out there. It was simply not true. I don’t know why we think that way. Maybe because we have this gloom and doom about us, this constant pessimism because we keep having hard cases with patients. But we do tend to think the worst.”

I now understood that it might not just be the brain that neurosurgeons are married to. It might not just be their patients and all the complicated cases they are worried about. It might well be neurosurgery itself – its place in the world of medicine and whether they could continue as neurosurgeons shining in the light that Cushing had lit.

Before Schulder walked back into his apartment building that night, he told me he had to go straight to bed. The next day, he would have to wake up at 5 a.m. and do it all over again. So as we parted, I couldn’t help but wonder, what if it were Teddy? James Gardner, another prominent neurosurgeon, referred to neurosurgery as a “jealous mistress.” Teddy is now in his third year of anesthesiology residency, which is busy, but not all-consuming. Had he become a neurosurgeon, I wondered, would I have grown into a jealous wife?

Hit Man: How Sean Taylor Left His Mark

Like many naive young men, I dreamed of being a football star. Like so many of those men, I had to accept that it would never happen. I wanted to be the powerful athlete who could bring down the strongest opponents and outrun the fastest ones. But I was not built for the brutal game.

I needed to channel that desire to someone who could be what I could not. I chose Sean Taylor. Taylor played free safety for the Washington Redskins and when I was in high school, still playing football, I became a fan. He was fast and strong, six-two and over 200 pounds, and possessed a skill set that was especially lethal: he was a merciless tackler. He was the most badass player at the most badass position in football, an already badass game. He never talked much, and this lent an element of mystery that made him all the more compelling. I don’t remember hearing him talk in an interview or a press conference.

His decision-making, off the field, could also be badass, too much so. He was charged with aggravated assault with a firearm and simple battery for aiming a gun at a group of men who apparently robbed him of his all-terrain vehicles in June 2005. He was fined and ejected from a 2006 playoff game for spitting on Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman. Stupid as these transgressions were, when combined with his devastating playing style, they helped mold his intimidating persona. He had come into the league and quickly established a reputation as an intimidator and had a nickname to match: “Meast”- half-man, half-beast.

Then he died.

On Nov. 26, 2007, he was shot during a home invasion. A bullet pierced his femoral artery. He died the next day.

His death was one of those “I remember exactly where I was when I found out” moments. I was a college freshman, getting ready for morning class and making my daily visit to before heading out the door. I learned the night before that he had been shot, but the reports didn’t make the situation seem too dire.

When I read the ESPN headline, “Redskins’ Taylor Dies,” the news hit me the way Taylor had hit his opponents: swiftly, without time to prepare. I don’t remember much of the rest of the day. I know I had an 8 a.m. psychology class and I talked about Taylor’s death with fellow football fans later that day. I remember watching an interview with Redskins running back Clinton Portis, one of Taylor’s close friends on the team, in a friend’s dorm room.

Five years have passed since Taylor’s death, and I still think of him from time to time. I think of what he was able to accomplish as a player in such a short career. Yet most people knew nothing about him besides his ability to hurt.

So not long ago, I decided to find out what I could about who Sean Taylor really was. I would find his teammates and perhaps travel to Miami, his hometown, and talk to his friends and family, and through them piece together a narrative of his life.

Things began promisingly. Cory Johnson — the head football coach at Miami Killian High School where Taylor spent his first two years of high school, and his brother Leron talked to me about Taylor’s early years. They told me that he was a quiet person who loved playing football. They did not think his run-ins with the police were indicative of more serious problems. I spoke with Ashon Lillie, a police officer who works with Taylor’s father Pedro, the chief of police of Florida City, who told me that his son idolizes Taylor.

But then I encountered two problems. The first was Taylor’s father, who threatened me with legal action if I pursued the story of his son.

The other was Sean Taylor himself, or rather the Taylor that began to emerge in stories people told. In death, as it was in life, Taylor remained an enigma. He was not the sort of person whose life evoked stories and tales and images that endured years after he died. I began to wonder whether the true Sean Taylor was, in fact, the player I had so admired for being all that I could not be: the safety, the “Meast.” Perhaps the story of Sean Taylor was to be told not in how he lived, but in how he played the game

I did not appreciate the athleticism required to be a safety until I played football. On my high school freshman team, our most athletic players were safeties, because the position required so much. From then on, safeties occupied a bigger chunk of my appreciation of the game.

They are called safeties for a reason. They line up furthest from the quarterback and are the last line of defense, the last two players the ball carrier must evade to get to the end zone. Good safeties specialize in one aspect of the game, be it tackling, coverage or blitzing. The great ones take skills from every other defensive position and apply them to their own role. They tackle like beefier linebackers, cover like swift cornerbacks and rush like immense linemen.

One of the best compliments a football player can get goes something like this: “He’s not a running back/wide receiver/tight end; He’s a football player.” This means a player possesses a complete mastery of the game. Safeties take that praise one step further. They are not just football players; they are athletes. Like Taylor, they must be physical enough to hit bigger offensive players and fast enough to keep up with the quicker ones. This athleticism transfers most seamlessly to sports like track and field or basketball. Take safety Eric Reid, the 18th overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. At the NFL combine, where draftees go through a gauntlet of drills to test their measurables, Reid ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds, benched 17 reps of the 225-pound bench press and registered a vertical leap of 40.5 inches. The 4.53 40 time is actually about a tenth of a second slower than most safeties would like clock in at, and the 40-inch leap is comparable to that of NBA players.

On the field, however, these impressive numbers hold little value. Reid could be the next Sean Taylor, or he could be one of the many flops who enter every year with high expectations only to find themselves looking for a regular job. Because once the ball is snapped, safeties cannot rely on their natural abilities alone. Like every other football player they must be able to read and react to opponents in seconds, but in the case of safeties must do so dozens of yards away from the action. Because they are so far removed from the line of scrimmage, safeties must be able to cover a lot of ground if they are to have an impact, especially on a pass play. They have to decide, correctly, where the ball is going, make their way quickly to that spot and be prepared to either tackle the receiver, knock the ball down, or better still, intercept the pass and maybe even run it back for a touchdown.

Safeties must also have the courage to run to the scrum in front of them, all the while paying heed to the receivers trying to get behind them. When a running back breaks through the defensive line and past the linebacker, safeties must make the tackle their bigger teammates missed. They have to be able to rush the quarterback –– before he can throw to the receiver the play has left uncovered.

All these many tasks means that safeties are often the statistical standouts of their defenses, routinely leading their teams in interceptions and also ranking high in tackles, sacks and recovered fumbles. The best safeties also return punts.

So it was that I gravitated to safeties when I watched football. I saw safeties as the apotheosis of the complete football player. They were physical marvels, tall and powerful. They looked the way football players should look.

Every team has, or wants, a safety that can confuse and hurt. Dashon Goldson did both with the San Francisco 49ers, and was one of the most coveted free agents of the 2013 offseason. Bernard Pollard, now with the Houston Texans, earned a reputation as a Patriot hunter because of his hits on New England players Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Stevan Ridley, all of which caused some sort of injury.

These hits do not just hurt at the moment of impact. They linger. The hardest hit I took in high school bothered me for much longer than its duration. I was a blocker on a kick return, which is football at its most anarchic. Blockers run around looking for someone to hit; defenders sprint after the returner trying to level blockers in their path. I was one of those blockers.

A defender blindsided me; the force of the impact centered on my helmet’s earhole. I hit the ground, got back up and did not re-enter the game. I remember feeling a ringing in my head. It was not, strictly speaking, a serious hit. But it was powerful enough to provide me the proper introduction to a game that, unlike mere contact sports, is really a “collision” sport.

I have tackled and been tackled and the pain, while present, is often more subtle. If an opponent’s facemask, say, strikes an unprotected part of your body, it will leave a bruise that will eventually take on every color of the rainbow. A cleat leaves a stinging cut. Then there is just the day after a game, when it hurts to walk or cough.

Sean Taylor must have loved inflicting the pain. I certainly did not. I was the player who shied away from contact, who would flinch when I felt its presence. I was not and am not a football player. I love the strategy. The pain I can do without.

From an early age, those who watched Taylor play saw in him the makings of a hitter. Among his early mentors were the Johnson brothers, Cory and Leron, who grew up near Taylor in the Fairway Heights section of Miami.

“His nose for the ball and the way he would stick his head into the fire was pretty remarkable,” says Cory Johnson. “We could tell that as soon as his skill set caught up with his frame and his knack for playing it was going to be something special to watch.”

Taylor’s gifts were not limited to football. “He was always looking to dunk on somebody,” says Leron Johnson of his explosiveness on the basketball court.

Taylor grew up with his father Pedro and his wife. Taylor’s biological mother Donna Junor lost custody of him when he was 9, reported the New York Times. Pedro Taylor coached his son, putting together drills from equipment he bought at Home Depot, says Cory Johnson.

His aggression on the field aside, the Johnsons recall Taylor as a quiet young man who would get angry only when provoked. He was easy to coach and eager to learn.

“The kid played ball for all the right reasons,” Cory Johnson said.

Taylor played defense at Miami Killian High School and later transferred to Gulliver Prep so he could play on offense as well. He was a standout on both sides of the ball there. Film of Taylor in high school shows him running upright past defenders, his long strides making it look maddeningly easy. In 2000, the year Gulliver won the Florida Class 2A state championship, Taylor rushed for 44 touchdowns. He was that rare high school player who was a standout on defense too.

As a Miami Hurricane, Taylor displayed talents that looked like they would translate seamlessly to the next level. He intercepted 10 passes in his final college season and picked off two Craig Krenzel throws in Miami’s 31-24 loss to Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, which doubled as that season’s national championship game and Taylor’s final collegiate contest. When he ran his strides were long and graceful, and when he had space to build his momentum during a punt or interception return, he looked like he was almost floating.

At Miami, he also showed the football world what kind of hitter he would be when he entered the NFL. He hit in all kinds of ways. He would deliver the finishing blow to a ball carrier who was already tied up by another defender. He would grab fistfuls of jersey and throw an opponent down to the ground as effortlessly as someone slams shut a car trunk.

The Redskins took Taylor fifth overall in the 2003 NFL draft, and he quickly made an impact, with 76 total tackles and four interceptions in his rookie season. He made the Pro Bowl in 2006 and posthumously in 2007. At the time of his death, he was leading the league in interceptions, with five in nine games. He ended his career and life with 299 total tackles, 12 interceptions, eight forced fumbles and two sacks.

Gregg Williams, his defensive coordinator with Washington, told that Taylor was simply “the best football player I’ve ever coached –– by far.”

As quickly as he displayed his talent, he displayed his discipline issues. He was fined $25,000 for missing part of the NFL rookie symposium and continued getting in trouble. He was charged with driving under the influence in October 2004 and was later acquitted. In his most serious incident, he was hit with three aggravated assault charges and a misdemeanor for a June 1, 2005 altercation with two men who stole his two all-terrain vehicles. According to the Washington Post, he allegedly drove to West Perrine, a dangerous section of Miami near Fairway Heights, with Charles Elwood Caughman, also a defendant in the case, and pointed a gun at the two men. They left and returned 10 minutes later with a larger group. After a fight in which Taylor hit a man, they left and parked Taylor’s SUV at the home of a friend’s mother. The car was shot up soon after, but no one was hurt. According to the Post, that incident was not considered part of the fight involving Taylor.

Leron Johnson said the people who took Taylor’s all-terrain vehicles demanded money for them, and Taylor may have acted the way he did because he felt disrespected, and not because he was a criminal.

Taylor, who said he did not have a gun during the fight, would have faced up to 46 years in prison, but made a plea deal in which he was placed on 18 months of probation and was required to talk to 10 schools in Miami-Dade County about education and donate $1,000 each to those schools.

After all that came the alleged turnaround portion of Taylor’s life, when he grew up and had a daughter. It was this point in his life that he sprained his right knee against the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 11, 2007.

In the early morning of Nov. 26, 2007, five men broke into his house. His girlfriend Jackie Garcia and the couple’s daughter, Jackie, hid under the bedsheets while Taylor picked up a machete that he had for protection, according to ESPN. He saw Eric Rivera Jr. at his bedroom door. Rivera Jr. allegedly fired two shots. One hit Taylor in his leg, striking his femoral artery. He bled, profusely, slipped into a coma and died the following day at Jackson Memorial Hospital. The trial for four of the five men charged with Taylor’s murder – Rivera Jr., Jason Scott Mitchell, Timmy Lee Brown and Charles K. Wardlow – has been delayed nine times and is currently scheduled to start August 12 Venjah Hunte plead guilty to charges of burglary and murder.

According to reports after his death, Taylor’s generosity may have led to his death. The Naples News reported in 2008 that Wardlow was dating Taylor’s sister and that he, along with Mitchell, were paid by Taylor for cutting the grass at his house for a birthday party Taylor was throwing for his sister. The Naples News also reported Mitchell as saying that he did not think Taylor would be home, as the Redskins played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road Nov. 26. The story reported Mitchell as saying Taylor gave $10,000 to his sister and brother. The headline of the New York Times story detailing his life and death had a sobering headline that certainly did not paint Taylor as a thug or troubled person: “Taylor’s Heart of Kindness Might Have Left Him Vulnerable.”

In the days after his death, much of the conversation in the media focused on how Taylor was just beginning to mature. I would hear about how having a daughter calmed Taylor down. Leron Johnson did not see it that way.

“I wouldn’t say having a child calmed him down because he was never a wild dude like that,” Leron Johnson said.

Sean Taylor lives on in Youtube, on highlights of his most vicious tackles, hit after hit shown without pause and without the interruption of more mundane plays. There are some 10 Youtube videos entitled “Sean Taylor Highlights” or a variation of the phrase. They have gotten millions of views, and with them admirers. “He was a safety but he had a linebacker mentality,” Oakland Raiders defensive end Andre Carter, who played with Taylor on the Redskins, told me. “You had to be aware of where Sean was.”

Taylor lingered in his opponents’ heads. Former wide receiver Chad Johnson, who was then Chad Ochocinco, was once asked by a Twitter follower: “Who do u hate seein across from u when u line up the most?” He replied, “Sean Taylor. Gave me 3 concussions in a 2 year span.”

Together the hits make Taylor seem like a bully. I almost felt sorry for his opponents, as if the way they were being treated was an injustice.

But this was just a distillation of football, as played on its highest, if most violent level. Bodies clash and sometimes break. It is in the nature of the game.

But the beauty of the game for me is in the work, the intricacies of strategy that go into making the contact possible. Players study film in the hope of being able to anticipate –– to know –– what their opponents will do in a host of complex, rapidly unfolding situations. For a defender like Taylor, film study provides the clues that will allow him to be in just the right spot and the very moment his opponent is most vulnerable. Then he can hit him as hard as he can. Taylor’s hit on Florida State wide receiver P.K. Sam during was perhaps his most devastating shot. As Sam tried to catch a pass Taylor led with his helmet, pinning it between Sam’s helmet and shoulder, pushing him back and up with his arms. Sam went airborne, spinning around like a piece of paper on a windy day.

I do not enjoy seeing players get hurt. I did not like hearing about the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, in which defenders awarded cash payments to teammates for especially vicious hits. I was a bit sickened when I read recently that Taylor may have gotten paid in a similar arrangement in Washington by his former coach Gregg Williams: the Saints defensive coordinator who was fired for running the bounty program.

But I can appreciate players who prepare well for their opponents so that they can put themselves in situations where they can make good, hard tackles. This is the aspect of football of which I cannot get enough. I will imagine plays unfolding in my head, seeing all sorts of routes that receivers might run. Then I imagine how the defense might prepare and react. Hour upon hour, week after week of film and repetition, and running the play again in the hope of scoring a touchdown, or in the case of a safety like Sean Taylor, making the big, memorable hit.

Intimidation comes only to the smartest players. Talent alone cannot make a man a superstar. Taylor had to master all the technical skills to begin to become so frightening a player. Then he had to become a student, of the game, of his opponents.

I watched the Taylor highlights with Andy Lancberg, the head football coach at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, who recalled Sean Taylor as a hitter and a bit of a thug. I first asked whether he could recall how Taylor died.

“Why do I keep on thinking shootout?” Lancberg said. “Drug-related?”

Just looking at Taylor told Lancberg a lot about the kind of player he was. He was struck by Taylor’s size — 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds — when watching the YouTube video “The Legend of Sean.”

“That’s pretty humongous for a free safety,” Lancberg said.

We then start watching the hits. Good tackling starts with an explosion –– a tackler wanted to get his hips out of his defensive crouch quickly to make a powerful first step toward the ball carrier. Lancberg likened a good, hip-generated first step to a coil springing forward. Taylor, he noted, has particularly powerful hips. “He probably could squat his ass off, this guy,” Lancberg said of Taylor’s weight training.

That explosion, in turn, made Taylor’s tackling altogether different than most safeties. His opponents would not just fall. They would bounce off of him, or rise off their feet, blows exacerbated by the very wide shoulder pads he wore. Most defensive backs wear smaller gear. Taylor’s made his walk a bit more upright, his chest a bit bigger.

Most of his hits began the same way — lowering one of his shoulders and driving it into the opponent. This technique, however, can backfire. Miss the tackle and the defender takes himself out of the play. This approach, Taylor’s approach, goes against football fundamentals, which call for tacklers to wrap their arms around the opponent while lowering their shoulder, so they can latch on and drive the opposing player to the ground. Many of Taylor’s hits — the missile-like launches and forearm shots, in particular — might well have been whistled for penalties for unnecessary roughness.

Taylor did not completely ignore the fundamentals. His tackle of Denver Broncos running back Tatum Bell was textbook. Bell took a handoff but ran into a blocker. He stumbled, and by the time he regained his footing, Taylor had shot through the hole, driven his shoulder into Bell’s midsection and wrapped his arms around Bell’s hips, making it impossible for Bell to break the tackle. The force of the impact drove Bell back two yards. Taylor slammed him to the turf.

But perhaps the most telling moment came in a tackle that did not actually happen. Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terry Glenn was running a crossing route over the middle — where receivers are most exposed and particularly vulnerable. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw Glenn a pass that would lead him right into a charging Taylor. Instead of reaching for the ball, Glenn brought his arms back to his body to get out of Taylor’s way. This is called “alligator arming” and is a sin hard to live down. The pass sailed by him, and Glenn flinched as Taylor approached, even though the play was over.

The 2012 season would have been Taylor’s ninth. He would have turned 30 on April 1, and probably would have been on the downswing of his career. “He would’ve been a shell of himself,” Lancberg said. Perhaps, Lancberg went on, he might have moved from defensive back to pass-rushing outside linebacker.

It would have been sad to see Taylor’s skills fade, because it was on the field, playing the position he played the way he played it, that set him apart. He died when he was at the peak of his ability, which left admirers like me to wonder what more we might have seen from him had the intruders not come upon him that night five years ago. Careers and lives are not supposed to end like this. Sean Taylor was not supposed to be bleed to death from a bullet in the leg.

For a few years, I watched, in awe, an athlete who was everything I did not have the capacity to be. He made the game look easy and beautiful by the very act of being the most violent player on the field. He was my polar opposite. I am weak and he was strong. I am timid and he was a bully. I do not have swagger, and on the field of play Sean Taylor was a bad, bad man.

Beyond the MTA into the World of Commuting Obsessives

Every commute, no matter how long or how short, begins with a single step venturing from the comfort of home into the unforgiving outside world. My journey into the realm of transportation studies began when I moved to West 125th Street and purchased a small blue notebook.

Broadway and West 125th Street mark the border between Harlem and Morningside Heights, an area where Vino Fino and Max Caffè bleed into Rite Check Cashing. It is, like many gentrifying areas of the city, a diverse neighborhood. But the denizens of Broadway and West 125th stand united in the face a common nemesis: the capricious and unreliable companion that is the 1 train.

The 1 train is our sole way of reaching the vibrant world that exists below 125th Street. Yes, you could walk three long blocks east to the A train but no one does that. Instead, you perch on a platform high above the traffic below, staring at an electric sign that unhelpfully reads “Next 1 Train: DELAY” and wondering why you ever moved to New York City. Usually in these moments it is raining.

The small blue notebook was my defense against the 1’s unreliability. Inside are tidy columns filled with information about the amount of time spent waiting for the train, time to destination and the ambiance of the subway car (points gained for attractive people, points deducted for vomit). I’ve lived at West 125th Street for eight months now and the notebook is almost full. I find the same tranquility in these columns of numbers that others seek in a church service or yoga class.

I’ve never shown anyone the notebook, having long ago learned that private obsessions have a tendency to seem odd to others. It wasn’t until I attended my first hackers’ meet-up that I realized that others shared my obsession. They had, in fact, built an entire culture around the bizarre pattern that occurs five days a week when millions of people leave their homes and weave past one other: walking, driving, running up stairs and down escalators to jump onto trains. These travelers arrive at another building, where they remain for several hours. At the end of the day they stand up, leave their desks and repeat the pattern in reverse. Millions of tiny dots moving in a dizzying ballet of repeated motion: this is what data scientists see when they look at commuters.

I could try to make you understand the massive feats that go into enabling this dance by citing numbers. I could say that on an average Monday, 7.4 million people ride a New York City subway or bus and that the number increases by 700,000 if you include the surrounding metropolitan area. I could tell you that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent $12.6 billion serving these riders last year.

But this isn’t a story about numbers. This is a story about those curious individuals who look at their fellow human beings on the subway and see data points clustering into patterns. It’s a look into the beige and grey cubicles of the bureaucrats who spend their days studying what we do when we leave our apartments. It’s a glimpse of the data geeks who battled in court for the right to improve your daily trip and the futurists who want to radically transform the subways that transport us. Most of all, this is a journey into the world of those trying to see logic where the rest of us see only chaos.


Seat: Yes. Ambiance: 9. Time in transit: 0 minutes.

My investigation of the people who shape our commute began, counterintuitively, over the phone. Rosalie Ray, an economist at the Department of Transportation, was based in Boston. Thus, I was able to avoid the 1 train on a snowy January day and interview her from the comfort of my armchair. (Such telecommuting is on the rise but I wouldn’t discover that fact until months later.)

Ray was a casual acquaintance who had once spent 30 minutes animatedly explaining the intricacies of transportation budgeting to me at a party in Virginia. She readily obliged to sketch out the public transit landscape as it related to commuting.

It is a universally acknowledged truth that any academic field will have opposing camps that are vehemently divided on a point that seems as monumental to them as it does trivial to the rest of the world. The field of public transportation studies is no exception. One point of such contention is my very own New York City.

The problem? In the world of commuters, New York City is an outlier. But it’s an incredibly important outlier. Around half of America’s transit riders reside in the New York City metropolitan area, explained Ray. In terms of scale – both of geographic area and of population – there is no other metropolitan area like New York in the entire country. For urban planners this presents a problem.

Do you discount New York and model commuting plans on other, more “American” cities? Or do you make New York the model of scale towards which all other cities should aspire? (As a Bostonian, Ray may have been biased on this point.) Current studies on commuting and public transportation either exclude New York completely or treat it as an exception.

She explained that other rifts have developed even among those urban planners who agree on prioritizing New York. In any system of commuters or transit riders, you have groups of people whose journeys are competing against one another. You feel this when you are trying to catch the walk signal at a crosswalk only to be thwarted by a car making a right turn or – less statistically likely in New York City – if you are driving and have to brake hard for the yellow light because of an overeager pedestrian.

Urban planners have to prioritize these various groups—drivers, subway riders, bus riders, cyclists, walkers, super-commuters—not only in how they build streets but also in how they allocate budgets. “Rail is a higher income bracket,” Ray said matter-of-factly. Buses cost more money and generate less revenue (at least in New York City), but serve lower income communities that have greater need, according to a New York Metropolitan Transportation Council presentation in October 2012.

Cities have to find a way to evaluate the needs of the different groups and justify their spending patterns. For years that way was something called the “four step model.”

The four step model, a relic of the 1950s, looks at a person’s journey from four different angles in an attempt to forecast the effects of transit changes. [1] It has been the dominant tool of urban planning for decades. Now, a new tool is being employed both to enhance the four step model and to radically transform how urban planners look at commuting trips. That new tool is data, but not just any data. “Big data,” said Ray, excitement palpable even over the phone. “The four step model was the best they had for a very long time,” she said. “But before you could never know where everyone actually wants to go. You just model it.”

As anyone who has relied on HopStop, Google Maps or a similar public transit app knows, the availability of data can make the daily life of a commuter easier. Big data plays another, equally important role in the life of the commuter, by transforming the way that citizens influence public transportation planning. A quick Google search revealed an upcoming MeetUp designed to bring together programmers, non-profit activists and government transportation authorities. Now it would also attract one journalist.

W.125th to 99 Madison Avenue: 30 minutes on the 1 and N trains according to Google, which was five minutes off. Apparently, Google doesn’t account for 4 -nch heels in their walking and transfer time estimations.

Seat: Yes. Ambiance: 4. Time in transit: 35 minutes.

The OpenData NYC meet-up was hosted at ThoughtWorks, one of the many Manhattan tech start-ups indistinguishable from each other with their fridges full of beers and vague mission statements. ThoughtWorks was unusual only in that its offices were in Midtown rather than the downtown corridor of the original “Silicon Alley.”

ThoughtWorks, like all New York start-ups, is hungry for developers. It was a calculated decision on their part to open their offices and beer fridge to that night’s MeetUp. Though two presenters were from government agencies, civically minded programmers were scattered throughout the audience. The buzz was about the new bike-sharing program that was going to be rolled out in the spring. Everyone seemed to know each other and to know each other’s work. An IT Director from a local transportation advocacy group and an NYU urban planning student in a hoodie traded bike route tips over Brooklyn Lagers.

This particular MeetUp was punnily entitled “All Aboard! The Reboot, a Presentation of MTA’s Bus Time & NYC DOT Data” and pizza had been promised in addition to the beer. Though we were ostensibly here to discuss the release of new bus information, the real purpose was to provide a safe space where developers and data-loving bureaucrats could meet.

Once fed, we were ushered into a small conference room with fluorescent lighting and two columns of chairs facing the speakers, who were from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the NYC Department of Transportation (two distinct groups, the first run by the state and the second by the city). The techies whipped out their Macs and the presentation began.

I could elaborate on the bus data shared but there’s a reason that the room was filled with programmers, not journalists. Data – even for someone who logs every trip she takes on the 1 in a small blue notebook – is dry. It does not become more scintillating when presented in PowerPoint format by a bureaucrat. So I will not go into detail except to say that busses are installing GPS trackers so that there will soon be more accurate real-time information and that this news was received with great enthusiasm by all in the room.

The harmony apparent between the MTA and the programmers was astounding when you consider the schism that existed only four years ago. The MTA historically has had a tumultuous relationship with data and particularly with programmers. For a period in the early to mid 2000s, the MTA filed a series of lawsuits against developers who wanted to use the schedule data. Metro-North, the commuter rail that connects the city to the wealthy bedroom communities of Connecticut, was especially notorious for its litigious tendencies. As recently as 2009 the MTA sued Chris Schoenfeld, creator of the StationStops mobile app, demanding he pay licensing fees for schedule data. Within a year of the lawsuit against Schoenfeld, the MTA had backed down and agreed to open up data to everyone. Or, at least, to stop suing developers if they tried to use what data was available.

Though the MTA is overseen by the Governor’s office, not the city, it is the organization that controls the New Yorker’s daily commute. It was the MTA that got the city up and running so quickly after Hurricane Sandy and it is the MTA that is responsible for the weekly delays I experience on the 1. It controls not only the subways and the buses, but also the Staten Island Ferry, Long Island Rail and Metro-North Rail. The MTA is big and bureaucratic and up until recently, they did not like app developers or data journalists at all. I couldn’t understand my commute without understanding the MTA.

W. 125th to 199 Water Street: A seemingly interminable ride down the length of Manhattan on a 1 train that creaked and paused between stations.

Seat: Yes. Ambiance: 6. Total time in transit: 53 minutes.

My source, a consultant to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, glanced nervously at the blinking light on my recorder. “Let’s keep everything I just said off the record. Everything,” he said. He mentioned that he had been a journalist and that he knew how these things worked. For context, he had been explaining to me the statistical method by which NYMTC discerned commuter habits. It wasn’t exactly the WikiLeaks cables.

We were at a small table at R&R Coffee, a hipster oasis with Intelligentsia Direct Trade coffee in the grubby part of the Financial District near the Fulton Street stop. My antsy source agreed to put me in touch with the Public Information Officer at NYMTC. Several weeks of emailing later I was back in the neighborhood to meet with the urban planners doing the top-secret statistical analysis.

NYMTC is pronounced “Nim-tick” by those in the know. It is most often used in referenced to research, as in “Did you see the new Nim-tick report on super-commuters?” They’re the state-sponsored data-crunching hub of New York transportation research. They’re numbers people.

This is how it works: all of the transportation organizations in the region–MTA, Port Authority, and New Jersey Transit to name a few–send their data to NYMTC. NYMTC spends months synthesizing that data and ultimately producing something called the Best Practices Model, or the BPM as it is casually called on the 22nd floor of 199 Water Street. The BPM is a gloriously complex array of predictions of future transportation habits and it occupies much of the time of Sangeeta Bhowmick, who is sitting to my right.

Bhowmick wore a black turtleneck and red lipstick with a no-nonsense air of authority. She was there to discuss the BPM. Bhowmick was in charge of an entire team that spent its waking hours building the analysis. She knew the model inside and out. Munnesh Patel, to her right, was there to explain everything relating to their data practices. Across from me was Gerry Bogacz, the Planning Director who had been at NYMTC for over 15 years. This was the dream team of transportation planners, those who were moving the four step model into the future.

The BPM came into existence after the Clean Air Act of the 1990s required cities to better predict the impact their transportation’s impact on the environment. It takes into account every type of data you could consider: demographic shifts, changes in consumer commuting habits, the rise of telecommuting and “super” commuters (those who fly in or come from several hours away). Bhowmick wrangles all of these factors into one complex model that predicts what our commute will look like in the future.

The room that creates the BPM is mostly empty, except for the computer terminals lining the walls. People, mostly youngish and mostly men on the day I visited, sit at these terminals in front of spreadsheets, numbers and graphs. In the middle of a room is a giant counter with drawers for maps. Bogacz laughs a bit sheepishly, “We never use maps anymore. This has just become a table.”

Taped to the wall is the most recent iteration of the BPM. It’s an enormous four-foot long flow-chart with yellow rectangles, orange diamonds, red ovals and turquoise squares. Inside the shapes are phrases like “Transit Skims Procedures” and “Household Auto Journey Procedures.” Lines connect the shapes into one enormous web representing my daily commute, as well as those of 7 million other people. It is a thing of beauty and utterly incomprehensible.

A copy of the BPM is shared with all of the transportation organizations that contributed data. I ask Bhowmick if those organizations are able to understand the model and she laughs, saying yes, at least a few of them can. NYMTC also gives each organization more specific recommendations and analysis, what macro trends are in the pipeline and where funding could be best applied. “Then what happens?” I asked. Bogacz shrugged. Either the organizations follow the recommendations or they don’t, he said. NYMTC has no decision-making authority.

I had enjoyed my time with the data crunchers but I needed to find the people who actually made the decisions affecting my commute. In New York, there are as many as 12 transportation organizations but I wanted to learn about the big one, the one that managed the 1 train. I still needed to learn about the MTA.

W.125th to 295 Lafayette Street: 1 train to Times Square, R train to Prince Street.

Seat: No. Ambiance: 3 (very crowded, morning rush hour). Total transit time: 34 minutes.

‘I wish she still worked at the MTA,’ I thought as I sat across from Sarah Kaufman. Kaufman had been their internal advocate for open data, convincing administrators to come on board one by one. It wasn’t difficult to imagine her being convincing. She had a wry sense of humor and a matter-of-fact logic. The combination was disarming, even to a journalist trained to remain objective. I was sitting in her office at the NYU Rudin Center, laughing at her jokes–which were funny–and trying very hard not to like her. Kaufman lives in Prospect Park and takes the subway (a 22-minute ride on the F train, one of the only lines known to be more capricious than the 1).

Kaufman’s official title had been “Intelligent Transportation Systems Project Coordinator” and she was tactful about the MTA’s screw-ups. “It wasn’t a constructive move,” she said, of the decision of the organization to sue citizens attempting to make the MTA’s data more useful. Frank Hebbert, who partnered with Kaufman at the non-profit Open Plans, had been more forthright saying, “It was crazy that the MTA took people to court about this. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

The arrival of a new director who was more open to data sharing at the MTA made Kaufman’s life easier. Still, much of her time was spent going individually to all of the key people in the department, working to convince them that it was necessary to liberate schedule data. There was internal resistance. The organization was still reeling from September 11, as well as the more recent attacks on the London and Madrid train systems, which had killed hundreds of people. Letting the public know exactly when a train would pass through a busy, crowded station made people understandably uneasy. There were also more pragmatic budget concerns–due to union regulations no one at the MTA can do a new job without receiving additional compensation. Who was going to make this data usable and take on the task of sharing it with the public? Ultimately, enough momentum built up within the MTA and all of that resistance collapsed under the pressure. Now MTA holds hackathons to entice developers to use its data.

Kaufman recounted all of this to me politely but it was clear that she had explained it to journalists in the past, several times. She ultimately left the MTA precisely because she found such dealings taking a toll on her work. So much time was spent cajoling and convincing people that Kaufman had very little time to further her own projects.

When asked what those projects are Kaufman leans forward, her voice excited. “Right now, I’m doing a research project on crowd-sourcing for transit agencies to improve its management by gathering information from the public,” she explained. She added that if someone on the number 7 train tweets that something is happening on the train, the train management will likely get that before they receive feedback from the train operator who is sequestered in his own car. Or at least they would if they had some sort of formalized feedback loop. “But,” she said, “there isn’t one.”

No system has such a loop yet, though San Francisco’s BART system is the best at monitoring what riders say about it on social media. “The West Coast is so far ahead,” she said in a slightly wistful tone. “We’ll get there…eventually.”

W. 125th St. to 45 8th Avenue: 1 train to 96th St., switch to the express 3 train.

Seat: Yes. Ambiance: 9 (was given seat by lovely man with lovely expensive-looking shoes). Total transit time: 31 minutes.

The final step of my journey was to meet the people who are thinking bigger and bolder than the MTA: the futurist community. I sat at ‘Snice coffee in the West Village, staring at a sheet of paper covered in ovals and squiggly arrows. The ovals represented pods in a driverless transportation system envisioned by Garry Golden.

I came across the futurist community when I was looking for transportation conferences to attend. I had just missed the National Transportation Board conference in Washington, D.C. and wouldn’t be able to attend the upcoming Design-Build in Transportation conference in Orlando. But staring at me from the DBIT conference website, with the unself-conscious enthusiasm of an evangelist certain of his cause, was Golden.

Garry Golden

– futurist, strategist, Brooklynite – was trained at the University of Houston Future Studies Program. [2] You may have never heard of it but the program is one of the leading institutes churning out strategists who devote their time to long-term predictions. Futurists can study any number of fields but Golden specializes in transportation and urban planning.

Golden painted a picture of the New York in which I could live twenty years from now. Data-driven business models will revolutionize the taxi and bus systems. Taxis and cars will all be on demand, lessening congestion (fewer taxis circling the streets looking for passengers) and parking (fewer cars clogging up street sides). “The taxi companies are going to fight it tooth and nail,” Golden explained, his voice excited at the prospect of the impending battle.

He elaborated on how public infrastructure itself would change: there would be a subway of pods rather than trains. For example, if I were returning home from 14th Street, I would go to a specific spot on the platform for those of us going to 125th. Then, a train car would come and zip us directly there without the tedious stops along the way (this is the same system already used by elevators in Manhattan’s more efficient high rises and was also the diagram that resulted in cryptic scribbles on my napkin).

While the subways made underground travel more efficient, driverless cars would revolutionize traffic flow in and out of the city. “Do you know how many driverless cars it would take to control the traffic flow?” He asked. I didn’t. “One in six, Madeline. One in six!” He pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. They had slipped down in the heat of the moment. He explained further: if one out of every six vehicles was a smart, driverless car connected to a central grid, those smart cars could effectively communicate with each other and adjust speed to affect the entire traffic pattern and prevent gridlock.

I left my meeting with Golden with a paper covered in scribbles and a sense of hopefulness. I could see a future without traffic jams, where trains would appear at the moment I needed them and take me to my exact destination. Then I descended into the West 14th station and was plunged back into the real world, entropy and all. There it was, the ominous “DELAY” displayed next to the 1 train.

A garbled voice came over the loudspeakers and I exchanged questioning looks with the other bewildered citizens on the platform. No one had understood the words but we intuitively knew the prognosis was bad. I trudged out of the station and walked over to the A/B/C to head uptown.

I switched trains at 42nd, walking the long tunnel that connected the two stations. Along the passageway, enameled tiles appended to the roof shouted my feelings in all capitals: “SO TIRED.” It seemed a strange choice for public art. “The Commuter’s Lament” is eight short lines in its entirety, together creating an ode to the arduous pattern that was the point of my obsession.









What was I doing? What were we all doing? There was a reason that the commute–and the people studying it–held such a fascination for me. All of these people, all of this data and millions of dollars spent trying to make it run smoothly. And it didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t. I knew then that I didn’t believe in a future where the systems ran efficiently and seamless, a future where commuting was less miserable. Driverless cars may take over the streets of Manhattan while subway pods run through its tunnels, but there will always be delays. The agony of the commute will persist.

Commuting is the ultimate surrendering of control. We’ve given our tax dollars and in return the government has pledged to help us make that journey from home to work and back again. They largely succeed. But it’s never as efficiently or comfortably as we would like. For that commute, you are trapped in transit with the rest of New York.

Shortly after I moved to New York, the city suffered a bizarre mini-epidemic of violent deaths on the tracks. A man pushed a father of two in front of the Q train in Midtown. A woman shoved another man onto the tracks of the 7 in Queens. You found out about it in the New York Post the next day, or on Twitter more quickly, but at the moment all you could see was that ominous “Delay.” Seeking to find some order in the misery was what drove me to obsessively track the 1 train and the programmers to develop apps and NYMTC to build complex models. We all want to understand what lurks behind that delay sign. But you can’t.

So many people were struggling to convert commuters into data points and pin down our transportation patterns–NYMTC, the MTA, Open Plans, the data geeks, the futurists. They all hoped to root out, or at least contain, the chaos. But the poem lining the subway walls spoke to an equal truth—no matter what the commute will always have chaos and will always be agony.

The poet who wrote “The Commuter’s Lament” was Norman B. Colp, a New Yorker who died in 2007. Until his death he lived on the Upper West Side, just minutes from the 1 train. At this moment, that was the truth that made me feel less alone.

1. The “four steps” of the four step model are, in order: trip generation (how many people are traveling from a specific place), trip distribution (where are these people going), mode choice (what mode of transportation are they using to get there), and route assignment (what route will they take to get there).Back to story.

2. In one of many interesting tangents during our interview, Golden adamantly argued in favor of Houston, which he claims is unfairly maligned as a city. A glib comment on my part led to a six-minute exposition of the metropolis’s merits, from its diverse demographic profile to the clusters of vibrant neighborhoods. Apparently, Houston isn’t the next big thing. It’s the current big thing and New Yorkers have been too myopic to see it.Back to story.

King of the Casino

Perched on a stool between two slots machines, Tommy T, little by little, is beating the casino.

At least, that’s what he says. The casino is where Tommy, whose name has been changed at his request to protect his privacy, can most likely be found at any given time. But it’s not like there are many people looking for him. Those who know him know where to find him.

Tommy is a slightly hunched 5 feet 10 inches, and mop-topped. He speaks quickly in Malaysian-accented Mandarin. He tends to lean in when he speaks and uses his elbows to nudge himself ever closer. He is eager to the point of aggressive when he wants to make a point, which is typically that he knows all that needs to be known about the casinos.

He strolls along the aisles in the casino’s main floor, hands clasped in front of him, taking in the games around him. He tries to get a sense of what he calls the “prevailing wind” — whether the tides at the tables are about to turn in his favor.

Even though many of the games are played electronically at the modern casinos, and there’s no actual wind from moving cards to detect, Tommy believes he can sense the atmosphere, lucky or not. From the slumped over middle-aged women to the eager tourists smiling gleefully, Tommy studies them all. And when he senses a potential winning streak, he swoops in.

It is a skill few have, he says, but one that he possesses. He can’t explain it in words, or teach it. It comes from years of experience. Tommy’s sense of the room and the moment is so refined that, in his telling, he has been able to get by without any source of income other than his gambling. After all, he is beating the casino, or so he says, one bet, and scam, at a time.

Tommy first tried his luck at a casino six years ago in Atlantic City. He was working in a restaurant where a friend had gotten him a job. But then the restaurant let him go and Tommy, hundreds of miles from his family, needed a job.

Tommy says that he moved with his family from Sarawak, Malaysia, to the United States in late 2006. He worked two jobs in Malaysia to save up enough money to bring his family over. At first they lived with relatives in Kansas. When he discovered that there weren’t any jobs for him in Kansas, Tommy took off in search of work. He went on the road for months, jumping from one odd job to another, moving from Kansas to Georgia to North Carolina and then to Atlantic City.

“Very lonely, it was very difficult,” recalls Tommy. “There was nothing to do.”

What leftovers he had from his earnings, he sent back to his family in Kansas.

He recalls how one day, sitting on his bed in an Atlantic City hotel room, newspaper classifieds in hand, he considered his options. Tired of sitting and staring at his hands, he left to stretch his legs, and decided to walk through the casino downstairs. He didn’t intend to play. “Back then, I didn’t know how to gamble,” he says. “I wasn’t a gambler.” But out of curiosity, he tried a slot machine. It looked simple enough. “Seems like it can be done,” he recalls thinking. That night, he made about $80. He was hooked. Very hooked.

He spent the following week visiting all the casinos in Atlantic City, where he signed up for membership accounts that would allow him to gamble there. Perks came with each account—T-shirts, mugs, souvenirs, and, best of all, food and gambling credit. His traveling bag stuffed, he headed to his next and final destination: New York City.

He says that he was headed to New York because he had heard he might find work there. When he got to the city, he found that people like him were plenty, and jobs were scarce. But then, perhaps he might not need a job after all. Perhaps, he had found his true path.

“What do you want to know about the casinos?” Tommy asks. “I can tell you everything you want to know.” But only up to a point.

He evades questions about his family and where they live. His friends don’t know anything either. “They’re in the West somewhere,” one says. Tommy was indignant when I told him a friend mentioned that he had two daughters. “Oh, he knows nothing,” he says. “I don’t tell him everything.” He then tells me he has four daughters.

They are in school, he says. One is majoring in design at a college in the West. “My daughters always get busy in May because they have exams,” he says. And that is as far as he will go. Other than a visit five years ago by his second daughter, Tommy hasn’t seen his family since he left Kansas. He says he talks to them on the phone from time to time, and sends them pictures of himself.

What few friends he has outside the casino are at once fascinated and amused by him. Xing He, who brought Tommy to the Resorts World Casino in Queens, when he first arrived in New York, six years ago, says Tommy is a gambling addict. “But not everyone can do what he does,” says He. “He can make up to $1,000 a night.” Actually, that only happened once. It was the best night Tommy ever had. Tommy is not a high roller.

Tommy and He got to know each other through mutual acquaintances. “He was a friend of my brother-in-law,” He says. And Tommy says he got to know He’s brother-in-law from back in Kansas, where they both worked as parking attendants, “Since we’re all Malaysian, we would help each other out.”

Tommy goes to the casinos every day—sometimes he goes early in the morning, sometimes his day starts at noon. Most days he manages to go to two casinos. He puts a little money in his wallet and walks from his apartment to Main Street in Flushing, Queens to take a bus to one of several casinos within a two-hour bus ride radius. He feels confident, he says, he is going to make money.

Tommy’s favorite game is Sic Bo, a popular Asian game played with three dice that literally means “precious dice” in Cantonese. He also favors Blackjack, at which, he claims he earns $90 on average a day. He says he can make another $100 from Sic Bo. He says the most he has ever lost in a night is $200, and that when he loses he can make up the loss the next day.

The secret, Tommy lets on, is observation. In Sic Bo, he explains, he will watch the croupiers for signs of “shaking hands.” This gives him a clue as to what numbers will come up next. Every game of chance, he says, has its weakness. And with enough time spent observing the patterns, “they can’t escape.”

“It’s like working at a job,” he says.

The work can be tiring. Waiting for the right moment can take hours of watching. Tommy spends eight-hour days at the casinos. His winnings, he says, cover his modest living expenses. He pays $250 a month to rent a bed in a Flushing apartment that he shares. Each trip to the casino costs him between $5 (to Resorts World 15 minutes away in Jamaica, Queens) and $20 (to Empire City or Mohegan Sun about two hours away in Yonkers and Connecticut respectively) for a round trip bus ticket. He eats at the casinos, using free food vouchers the casino provides to playing guests. He doesn’t smoke or drink. He only gambles.

And he is growing weary.

“I have no other way,” he says, “or I wouldn’t keep doing it.”

Tommy has never been to Manhattan. He has seen Brooklyn only from the bus window on his way to the casino.

Tommy is at his scheming-to-beat-the-casino best on the bus, on this night to the Resorts World casino, close-by in Queens. He takes a pen from his breast pocket and scribbles a membership number on a bus ticket. Later, when he gets to the casino, the food and gambling credit will be stored into an account linked to the membership number. This, he explains, saves time later when he is exchanging the ticket for food and credit vouchers. Beating the casino means that nothing should be wasted. Not time, not the food vouchers and not the credit vouchers.

Tommy does pause briefly to ask the driver how he is. “I just saw you last night,” the driver tells him. “Nothing much has happened since.”

“I’m just trying to be polite,” Tommy says with a laugh. He scans the other passengers. Most of the women are Chinese and Tommy avoids them. He says they’re rude and aggressive, and nothing good can come from getting in their way.

He also avoids the scrum that forms when the bus doors open and people rush to board. “As long as we get on the bus, everyone gets there at the same time,” he says, “What’s the point of rushing?” He’s one of the last to board, and when he gets on, seated passengers look up at him and whisper amongst themselves. “He’s always here,” says a middle-aged lady to her friend. “I see him every day.”

Tommy likes to hold forth on all sorts of things and says he reads a Chinese newspaper every day. But the conversation always returns to the casino – the latest regulations, the stars who will soon perform and what to eat.

The bus arrives and Tommy pauses to take in the entrance. “The façade of Resorts World is very beautiful,” he says, “unlike the other casinos.” Now the workday begins. He takes his bus ticket stub, ready to redeem it for $40 gambling credit and $5 food vouchers.

Inside, the passengers form a line in front of the reception desk, where they exchange their ticket stubs for the vouchers. Non-members get vouchers in exchange, while members of the casino get the food and gaming credit stored into an account based on the number written on the stub. Then, one-by-one, the members move over to a new line in front of a row of red-colored machines. They swipe their membership cards, and print out their vouchers. At the same time, they collect rewards points for their visit to the casino.

Tommy is almost impatient, and not only to start making money. He sees someone struggling with a reward machine, and leans over to help. “Press this,” he says, pointing over their shoulder. His help is not always welcome, and when it isn’t, Tommy simply shrugs. “They think they know better.” He also assumes the role of guide, pointing out the grandiose decorations and features. “Take pictures,” he says to me, gesturing at the circular stage in the middle of the casino where elderly couples dance to the lively jazz music played by a sharply-dressed band.

“Will you take a picture of me?” he asks as he moves to stand in front of the casino’s Lunar New Year display. “Can you print out a copy for me? I’ll pay you for it.” He will send the best ones to his daughters

He greets other regulars and jokes with them about how early they’re leaving or how late they’re arriving. Then he enters the gaming area, and goes to work.

The $40 credit voucher he had exchanged for his bus ticket expires in a month unless at least some of it has been used. So the first thing he does is to trick the casino’s machines into delaying the date of expiry. Sitting in front of two slots machines, Tommy feeds a voucher into one machine, hits “Start” to simulate playing, then immediately hits “Quit”. He has not spent any of the credit. The machine returns the same amount of credit and the same expiry date, but on a different type of voucher.

Tommy then feeds the newly printed voucher into the adjacent machine, hits “Start” and “Quit” again, and gets a new voucher. This time, the expiry date has been extended a year. Since vouchers printed out by game machines are different from the ones dispensed by reward machines, the new machine assumed that the credit had been used and updated the date of expiry.

This little “trick,” Tommy says, is one of many ways he is beating the casino.

He has quite a number of vouchers to activate. He frequently gets people to open rewards accounts at the casino and hand over the membership cards to him. This way he gets to collect many rewards points and vouchers to maximize his earnings.

To date, Tommy holds dozens of membership cards to the three casinos he visits most frequently, and spreads out his rewards points between them evenly. When he chalks up enough rewards points on his accounts, he earns free stays at hotels, free concert tickets or free food and drinks. And he makes sure to use them.

He has been barred from two of the casinos in the region for his attempts to beat the rewards systems. Yet he still manages to find his way back and keep playing. “The casino wants you to lose,” he says. “But I’m smarter than them.”

Tommy leaves the casino after midnight. He takes the bus back to Flushing and walks back to his apartment, or rather to the bed in the room he shares. He will be back the next day, and the next, because going to the casino means going home.

No Condoms in Porn Country

Logan Pierce is hard at work. There’s a girl draped across the bed behind him, lying patiently among red rose petals and spotless white sheets. She pushes one of the flower bits off her thigh with a fingertip. Pierce sighs, swigs some bottled water, wipes his brow, turns back to the bed for the next take. Facing her again, Pierce smiles despite himself. He looks past the silent black-rimmed cameras trained on the prone brunette, the handful of slow-breathing crew members gathered around, watching but not watching, the dangling booms and white-hot lights, and faithfully finds his co-star’s gaze.

“And just like that,” he says, “I fall in love.”

Pierce, who is 22, finished the scene—aptly titled Rose Petals—about an hour later, its conclusion coming when he did. He’s a porn star, one of a handful of men in the adult industry to earn a reputation as something other than a prop for female performers to rub up against. Porn noticed: just eight months after he filmed his first scene, Pierce won the coveted Best Male Newcomer award at the 2012 Adult Video News ceremony in Vegas. Not bad for a Philly kid in L.A. for a post-grad internship. The accolade propelled Pierce’s rep, leading the boyish—slim build, wide-eyes, floppy brown hair—porn-fan to over 200 jobs in the past year.

Pierce says he’s successful for two reasons.

1. He loves his job. (All chime in now: Like that’s hard.) Pierce’s take on his occupation: “I shot a scene on a yacht off the coast of Ibiza last month. I didn’t just go there; I got paid to go there. And I didn’t just get paid; I got paid to fuck beautiful women.”

2. He’s romantic. “If I’m going to make love to a girl,” he tells me after wrapping Rose Petals, “I’m going to make that girl think that I’m in love with her. I’m going to worship her body.” Such on-set dedication is rare in porn, where detachment despite sex is key to maintaining any semblance of what Pierce calls a “normal emotional life” off set. Case in point: days before we met, Pierce broke up with a girlfriend of three months, who, despite being a porn performer herself, couldn’t reconcile with her boyfriend’s daily emotional investment on the job.

Pierce’s romantic nature makes him considerate, too: “I’m the only male performer who actually wipes his come off the girl at the end.” Pierce says his co-stars are shocked every time: no other guys ever bother. This makes girls clamor to work with him. Hence, popular. Hence, successful.

But things may be changing for Pierce. Lately his romanticism—or “porn-idealism,” as he puts it—has led him far from sets populated by horn-rimmed teachers and horny housewives. The stud is now plaintiff in a lawsuit to repeal Measure B, a new law that makes condoms mandatory everywhere in Los Angeles County that a male performer plans to penetrate a co-star on film. Specifically anally or vaginally, so you know. Excluding oral and other, more fetishy stuff, so you know more.

Pierce protested Measure B because if he didn’t, he worried “no one else would.” He still isn’t sure whether most porn performers don’t voice their opinions more because “they are afraid of the ridicule” of the public’s daylight-eye, “or because they have nothing to say.” Either way, unafraid and with plenty to say, Pierce decided to play the leader. To “fight for a cause I believe in.” Through December, he spoke with Kayden Kross, a female star consistently ranked in the top five of any 100 Hottest Porn Stars! list published since her first D.V.D. cover in 2006, and adult production giant Vivid Entertainment. In January, on behalf of Pierce, Kross and itself, Vivid lawyered up, retaining porn’s most celebrated judicial champ, First Amendment and criminal defense attorney Paul Cambria of Buffalo, New York.

From there things moved fast. On January 11th, Cambria—who politely prefers the industry he represents referred to as “adult,” rather than “porn”—sought an injunction against L.A. County’s Director of Public Health Jonathan Fielding, District Attorney Jackie Lacey and L.A. County itself to repeal Measure B.

His suit’s grounds? Expansive.

Foremost and “extremely important,” Cambria argues that Measure B infringes his clients’ First Amendment rights of free expression.

“On the bases of prior restraint”—government censorship on expression before the expression is even expressed—“and content-based regulation”—expression blocked based on its substance—Cambria tells me from his Buffalo office, condoms compromise porn’s rights. By requiring actors to don rubbers while they perform on camera, the county is dictating how content creators make their films. That’s unacceptable constitutionally, according to the attorney.

And Cambria knows his Constitution—especially when it comes to after-dark entertainment. The broad-jawed, slick-locked attorney has represented nudie heavyweights since the 1970s, when pornographers like Hustler founder Larry Flynt were routinely brought up on obscenity charges. Cambria represented Flynt back in the day, saw the skin-mag icon shot in the spine outside a Lawrenceville, Georgia courthouse during an obscenity trial in 1978. Cambria has defended rapper DMX, rocker Marilyn Manson, “everyone from judges to priests” since, filling a slot on porn’s speed dial all the way.

He tells me condoms corrupt pornographers’ creativity by breaking the illusion their films thrive on.

“Let’s say this was the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which take place in the 1730s,” he says. “And all of a sudden Captain Jack whips out a condom. It kind of destroys the movie. The whole creative process.”

Condoms could be similarly ridiculous in porn.

“What if we had a movie where a couple was trying to have a child, and they couldn’t?” Cambria asks. Desperate to get knocked up, the wife—let’s call her Darla—decides to have sex with the four other members of her husband’s bowling team. Everyone’s willing enough, Cambria explains, but every time Darla approaches a bowler, he reaches for a condom. There goes the premise.

“That’s actually not far fetched as a subject for one of these movies,” Cambria offers the silence on the other end of the line.

For Kayden Kross, rights are means to profits. The California native is likely what you picture when someone says “porn star:” tousled yellow hair, a form simultaneously toned and curved, a red upper lip as swollen as its lower sister, bright eyes that in photos play only coy or yes or surprise!

She’s also smart, and works to sound it. She navigates her sentences carefully but edged, like a woman crossing a minefield the rest of the world refuses to acknowledge.

“Legislators will never come out and explicitly say they’re going to amend your free speech rights,” she tells me, pinioning her cell between her chin and shoulder as she herds a yippy puppy into her L.A. apartment. “Instead they’ll do something like enforce condoms, knowing we have a consumer base that won’t buy condom porn, eating away at our sales and stunting our business.”

Besides, Kross continues, performers are healthy without condoms. Long before Measure B, the industry instituted a “green test” policy, she says. Every two weeks, each performer underwent a urine-based test for a host of S.T.D.s. No green result, no roles.

Kross has relied on porn’s testing procedures since her first scene six years ago. She still does, traveling out of L.A. County almost daily to film scenes bareback.

“The testing is tried and true,” she asserts. “I’ve been shooting a movie a month since I started, and I’ve never had a dirty test.”

Porn’s in-place testing has been “mandated through 100 percent of the industry” since 1998, adds Pierce. But mandatory condoms make that testing redundant, and producers won’t waste money on two safeguards. With condoms the new standard, Pierce cautions, producers will “take anyone off the street and throw a condom on him.” More random dudes in the porn pool makes for more danger of disease brought in from outside the community. Which makes mandatory condoms potentially more dangerous than porn’s testing.

“There are no protections,” says Cambria, “that are as good as the testing that had been working in the adult industry for all these years.”

If you have an afternoon to kill, ask an adult performer if they enjoy filming with condoms. Spoiler: They do not. Latex is Kryptonite to porn stars.

“We’re shooting for 45, 60 minutes at a time, in positions that are not ideal for condoms at all,” Kross explains. The “high energy, high impact” positions, invented “to open up for the camera so you can get a clear shot,” coupled with constant “switching and stretching in different ways,” says Kross, makes putting a “latex barrier in between those very sensitive organs” extremely irritating, extremely quickly.

The male perspective?

“I can’t tell you how much I despise wearing condoms,” Pierce tells me. “They are restricting and abrasive. They dry the girl out and dry themselves out so you have to keep reapplying them.” The hassle slows shoots down, which “amounts to male talent losing wood, everyone losing energy, needing more lube.” The naked comedy of errors continues: “Then the card’s full on the D.S.L.R. and by the time you get a new one, no one’s even horny anymore.”

Other concerns?

“Believe it or not,” says Pierce, “there are a lot of girls in this industry who have latex allergies.”

Stocked with porn’s anti-condom rationale, I contacted reps of L.A. County’s health community. I wondered if sharing porn’s reasons would affect how the Measure B camp weighs its do-good law.

Not so much.

Paula Tavrow has been involved with Measure B since before it had a name. One mild California evening in 2005, Tavrow, the Director of the Bixby Program in Population and Reproductive Health at U.C.L.A.’s School of Public Health, heard some of her graduate advisees talking about porn. What does sexual health in the adult industry look like? the students wondered. Tavrow organized a series of speakers to fill the students in: visiting porn performers told one side, health officials another. But the two stories were irreconcilable. To porn, their industry was as healthy a livelihood as dentistry; health workers saw the barometer closer to volcano spelunking.

Piqued, Tavrow oversaw a one-day “think tank” that “brought all the players together…to see if there was a way we could bridge our differences,” she says, “and agree on a healthier way for porn to proceed in L.A.”—if necessary. Attendees included public health officials, porn stars and producers, even Paul Cambria. But porn was “very antagonistic” to the idea of safer, condomed sex being mandatory, Tavrow says, something the public health camp maintained was a reasonable suggestion. No consensus was reached by day’s end.

“That’s when the AIDS Healthcare Foundation got interested,” says Tavrow. The A.H.F., the largest community-based HIV/AIDS medical provider in the U.S., had attended Tavrow’s strategy session. They sensed a worthy cause in porn’s condoms; a publicized estimate that 22 L.A. HIV infections since 2004 could be traced to the industry soon followed. The A.H.F. drafted a proposition for the law that would become Measure B—and started fundraising immediately. Over the next six years, the nonprofit collected nearly $1.7 million. The coffer dwarfed the $118,000 raised by the adult industry to campaign against the fledgling Measure; with little trouble, the A.H.F. swayed the L.A. city council to approve their condom proposition, dubbing it the County of Los Angeles Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act. (Less of a mouthful, ‘Measure B’ is the law’s street name.)

But problem, not solved. Most porn was shot in the San Fernando Valley, well out of L.A. city limits. So the A.H.F. went county-wide, placing Measure B on the presidential ballot in November, where the act would appear before the most voters possible. By Election Day 2012, the foundation’s treasure chest had put in work: “Vote Yes on B” billboards, t-shirts and sign-twirlers dotted the county. The electorate responded; 89 percent of L.A. County presidential voters casted ballots on Measure B, and the proposition became law.

While condoms-on-set is everyone’s favorite Measure B point to yell about, it isn’t the whole law. Measure B makes porn real, a lawful business with serious safety procedures and penalties for screwing around. To wit: Before they film, producers must obtain what the Measure calls “adult film production public health permits” from the County; pay permit fees to cover salaries of “condom inspectors” (that’s a Kross-ism) who will inspect porn’s collective penis periodically; prove everyone on-set took a course in bloodborne pathogen safety.

Any violations are punishable by $1,000 fines or six months in county jail. Or both. Multiple violations are punishable as separate offenses, so multiply the fines and jail time by however many condoms or permits producers don’t provide their sets.

Then there’s an obscure bit towards the Measure’s end: “Any person or entity issued a permit for the filming of an adult film…are [sic] required to maintain engineering and work practice controls sufficient to protect employees from exposure to blood and/or any other potentially infectious materials controls, in a matter consistent with California Code of Regulation, Title 8, Section 5193.”

But the details of Title 8, Section 5193 are nowhere on Measure B.

I found them on the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health site. For something not on the Measure, Section 5193 has a lot of strings. Outlining “barrier protections” from infectious materials, it’s what guarantees safe conditions for workers in medically dangerous places, like hospitals. Porn workers are exposed to the same possibly infectious materials hospital workers are, the Measure reasons, so they should be entitled to the same protections. Whether they like it or not.

That means Measure B doesn’t just affect performers. Any employee who will be exposed to infectious materials on-set—which could be anyone present, as fluids fly around porn sets at unpredictable times and angles, like lasers in Star Trek—must take the same precautions as the performers themselves, says 5193.

And the precautions are steep. Working on a porn set or in a hospital means never knowing exactly what’s in the fluid flying at your head or spattered on the floor waiting for your clean up. Better super-safe than very dead: In such an environment, all bodily fluids—all blood, semen, vaginal excretions, etc.—are “treated as if known to be infectious for HIV…and other bloodborne pathogens,” per Section 5193.

Quick question: If you were getting ready to go to work orifice-deep in HIV-laced goo, how would you dress?

I’d pack a mask. Maybe two. I’d double-up on gloves. I’d suit up hazmat-style.

Section 5193 feels about the same. It orders “personal protective” parameters undertaken when exposure to possible pathogens is likely, including safety goggles, masks, gloves; prohibiting eating, drinking, smoking, applying cosmetics or contact lenses on exposed surfaces; decontaminating exposed equipment with bleach before traveling.

Endless safety measures meant to protect workers from lazy or cheap employers who provide dangerous working conditions that might infect and kill. With Measure B, L.A.’s health department slapped a biohazard sticker on the entire L.A. County adult entertainment industry.

Ask a porn performer if they feel condoms, gloves, goggles and the rest of Measure B makes their jobs safer. They’ll say yes. I asked a bunch, and that’s what happened. But they’re quick to add that they aren’t going to gear up like Fukushima radiation screeners before work every day. No matter what health officials advise. They’d rather leave L.A. County. And take thousands of jobs with them, according to the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, the San Fernando Valley’s largest business advocacy group.

Is that what the A.H.F. wanted all along?

To the A.H.F.’s Mark McGrath, Measure B is common sense.

“I’m actually astonished at the resistance we’ve had,” McGrath tells me. He was one of Tavrow’s bored grad students in 2005, brainstorming for something interesting to research. After receiving his master’s in public health from U.C.L.A., McGrath joined a L.A. County Health Department investigative team studying an outbreak of gonorrhea and HIV in the adult industry. Then the A.H.F. came knocking. McGrath now consults for the nonprofit: he drafted Measure B’s language and its website’s talking points, and organized its campaign.

McGrath considers the adult industry “quasi-human trafficking.”

“The industry feels it has no limits,” he says, “like they could at any time conceive a scenario and put a young man or young woman in that scenario, with no liability—at least for the producer.”

So he and his provided liability: “In Hollywood, we have stunt people. They do a lot of crazy shit. But they take precautions—they have to. The person on fire isn’t actually on fire.”

“Porn does double anal penetration,” Tavrow adds. “That’s so dangerous for the woman”—only slightly less dangerous than pyrotechnics. “So we made it safer.”

But it’s not all workers’ safety. It’s financial, too. When run-of-the-mill unregulated workers suffer injuries on the job, “the county agencies, as the main healthcare resources, end up paying those costs,” says McGrath. No difference in porn: as long as adult performers have fallen ill, California medical clinics have been “subsidizing this industry’s reckless disregard for human safety,” he says.

The adult industry has higher rates of S.T.D.s like chlamydia and gonorrhea than those of the general population, says McGrath. Technically, that’s an epidemic. Measure B is the answer, he continues, “the most cost effective way to prevent exposure.” And ensure California clinics don’t burn cash treating more outbreaks than it should be.

Here’s where I cleared my throat and related porn’s reasons for rejecting the rubbery cure. But McGrath and Tavrow had heard them before.

“The free speech argument is a symptom of the adult industry’s impotence,” McGrath answers. “It’s the only trick they have in their bag. And it won’t work.”

Tavrow explains why: She’d always expected Cambria to lob a First Amendment argument. “That’s why we made it very clear in Measure B that they don’t have to show condoms in the final product,” she says. Health officials couldn’t care less if Pierce’s condom is visible as he beds Kross on film, only that it’s there. Transparent condoms, digital tweaking of tape in postproduction to remove rubbers and “tricks of the trade,” Tavrow says, like creative camera angles and contorted limb-positioning would leave the industry’s final product unaffected by Measure B.

Producers can even fake the “so-called money shot—you know, when they spray a women’s face with semen,” Tavrow continues in a voice that suddenly sounds too much like my bubbie’s to be detailing such things. “There are substances that look like semen that you can spray all over her and the public would…think it was coming out of some guy’s penis or several guys’ penises,” she tells me.

And if porn claims the fudging would cost too much—which they did, to me—Tavrow calls them savvy exaggerators. The Ph.D. has spoken to porn producers who confided in her privately that they already spend substantial time and money on digital postproduction, “weeks,” she says, “removing zits and scar lines from bad breast jobs on actresses.” Removing condoms wouldn’t be an extra burden.

But can postproduction remove hazmat suits? I ask.

What hazmat suits? McGrath replies.

According to the drafter of Measure B, porn is “fear mongering” when they say Section 5193 will make for sex scenes between cosmonauts. Gloves? Required only when fisting, McGrath says. Goggles? Only in money shot scenes, worn by the performer being shot with money—and only if his or her co-star is aiming for the eyes. No condoms in oral sex scenes either, unless there’s an open sore on either party’s pertinent part.

“Anywhere that broken skin or a mucus membrane like the eyes’ come in contact with blood” or other potentially infectious fluids, McGrath says, constitutes exposure and necessitates a protective barrier. But fluid “contacting unbroken skin is not considered an exposure,” and doesn’t require dressing up.

So Title 5193 is less severe than porn complains. No hazmat suits, gloves, goggles or masks on anyone not about to touch a questionable substance with their eye, anus, abraded anus, or wound. That means no plastic on the cameraman at all. Unless he plans on getting frisky with a sound-guy’s mucus membrane.

If it’s unwise to ask a porn star about having sex on latex, it’s downright dumb to ask a California health expert whether porn’s preemptive testing is ship-shape.

“That’s what the producers tell the performers,” McGrath says with a huff. “That they’re using the most up-to-date scientific protocols to keep them safe.” Really, as far as McGrath’s medical circle assesses, “the testing they’re doing is inadequate,” falls woefully short of “recommendations from health departments.”

Porn “should be swabbing anatomical sites, i.e. rectums and throats,” McGrath explains, “but instead they’re using urine-based tests,” which are outdated and “miss as much as two-thirds of the infections.”

As far as the S.T.D.s that performers and producers are aware of, floating down their bloodstreams or clinging to their soft pink organs, McGrath sighs, “We—they—are looking at a tip of the iceberg.”

An estimate of the submerged part of that iceberg: “Sexually Transmitted Infection Testing of Adult Film Performers: Is Disease Being Missed?” a study by Christina Rodriguez Hart, another of Tavrow’s former students, analyzed S.T.D.s treated by L.A. County clinics in 2010 and found that an adult performer is 8.5 and 34 times more likely than any other sexually active adult to contract chlamydia and gonorrhea, respectively.

“Worse yet,” McGrath said, “the reinfection rate within a year is very high—between 25 percent and 26 percent.” Even if porn’s old-school test hits on a performer’s disease and he or she is cured, they’re likely to get sick again. Quick.

“And yet,” MsGrath adds, “producers have convinced their performers that this testing is a cleansing ritual,” a biological members-only pass to a party of protected intimates. “Something that matters.”

They’re full of shit.”
-Kayden Kross

Porn remains dubious. Despite the data, Kross still flatly refuses to perform with condoms. She seems as worried about S.T.D.s on set as she is about poison dart frogs.

But the longer we speak, the more her script slips. Turns out Kross isn’t fully reassured by porn’s testing procedures or some biophysical trust built between performers. She’s secure most of all because she’s popular.

Kross, who is 27, has killed it in porn since she first unzipped for the camera. Hot enough to land video and magazine covers, Kross says she “has a lot of pull with the fans.” Which translates into pull on set. If she “asked for the moon,” she laughs, producers would “hand it to her with a fucking bow on it.”

Kross’s pull leverages her healthy choices: she picks whom she performs with and when. Less popular performers risk their jobs if they refuse to work bareback with a co-star who hasn’t been tested in nearly month; top stars like Kross don’t. She says no thanks, producers find her another warm body.

Kross offers an analogy to connect her popularity to her Measure B aversion: “Let’s say Major League Baseball was thinking about introducing a new rule to require protective vests for pitchers” so they aren’t killed by line drives to the chest. “And the high end, valuable players said they didn’t want the rule. But the little people in the minor league who sit on the bench all day said they did want it. Are you going to pass this law because the little people who are barely in the sport at all want it?”

Unfortunately for Kross, the answer to her rhetorical question is, apparently, yes. The law passed. Seems the “little people” had some pull, too.

Logan Pierce’s case for Measure B also slips lower the longer he makes it. The more we chat, the more he talks about the tougher days in porn, like the November afternoon he partook in a six-man-one-girl gangbang.

“That was a fucking weird experience,” Pierce exhales. He was a porn rookie, and had never done anything remotely orgy-tastic before. But ready or not, the cameras started rolling. “At least the girl was into it,” he says.


“I love it,” Sarah Shevon ogles into the camera lens a foot from her face. She’s perched on the edge of a teacher’s desk, the chalkboard behind her blank. Her dark hair, thick-framed glasses, red mouth and white blouse, top two buttons open, convey some conflation of teacher and asking for it. It’s been a year and a half since her last gangbang, she confides in the camera, all lashes and dimples, “and I’ve really been itching for more.”

“What do you want to accomplish here?” the cameraman persists.

“I just want to be busy,” Shevon shrugs, miming stroke-motions in the air around her head. “Get as many cocks in me as I can.”

Cut to that happening.

Shevon loses her shirt and skirt, masturbates at the head of the class, then hops down and crawls between the students’ desks, fishing under them for those male parts she mentioned. It must be a night class for adults, because some of her students are at least 45. No worries. Shevon seems, as Pierce says, “into it.”

Shevon’s game-day attitude got Pierce through. Barely. To turn himself on, he still had to tap into “those dark fantasies everyone has,” he says, “throw all romance aside” and give in to the “subconscious, visceral, primal.” Not a place Pierce often likes to go.

But it worked. The day was successful because he connected with his co-star.

That’s what Pierce hoped his lawsuit would do, he explains, segueing so fast my eyes cross. Pierce wanted the suit to connect the porn community, give it a cause to rally behind.

I first spoke to Pierce three weeks after Cambria filed his suit. Three months later, Pierce’s enthusiasm is faded. “I haven’t heard dick from those people,” Pierce says. “Not one word from those lawyers since my name was written on that bill.”

After all the frantic fundraising, press calls, wide-eyed commercials series, “Vote No On B” bannered buses, solemn Ron Jeremy YouTube spots, swarms of platinum-blonde and goateed picketers in front of Hustler Hollywood chanting “Keep my wienie free/ No on Measure B,” countless interviews and tweets and retweets by everyone from M.I.L.F.-niche-staple Lisa Ann to perpetually eye-brow-cocked porn boy toy James Deen; and after hiring Paul Cambria—who don’t come cheap—porn has done nothing?

Seems not.

Unless it was a play, I offer.

A ruse. A firestorm of feigned outrage because outrage is interesting and what’s interesting grabs eyes. What if porn’s lawsuit against Measure B was never a fight the industry planned on winning—or even seriously waging? Was just another role up for hungry takers, another set with more thoroughly clothed actors and even droller writing, where the only real difference was what the performers meant when they said briefs?

“I honestly wouldn’t put it past them,” Pierce says with a sigh. Over the last fourteen weeks, once the phone stopped ringing with Cambria or Vivid C.E.O. Steven Hirsch on the line, vetting Pierce to make sure he “wasn’t a moron, didn’t represent them poorly,” he says, Pierce’s righteous chest deflated. He wondered why a kid who’d just entered the industry was entrusted such a representative role. “What about the guys that have been in porn for 20 years? Shouldn’t they have a voice?” he asked himself.

Unless those industry vets were seasoned enough to know what this was from the start: A noisemaker for its own sake. Maybe Pierce took the role—“which was casted for, by the way; Vivid wanted one female and one male,” Pierce tells me—not because he was brave, but naïve.

Pierce now suspects his bosses “just wanted something on paper that they could spit out and make into a public statement.”

Kross is less concerned. From the beginning, putting her name on the suit was a no-lose scenario, however it turned out in court. “Being a plaintiff let me do N.P.R., B.B.C., big mainstream interviews,” she says. Thanks to the highly publicized protest, “my name got exposure, which furthers my brand, which makes me more valuable to Digital Playground,” Kross’s main employer. “It’s a self-helping loop.”

The more work a porn performer does outside of adult content, the more currency she banks within the agency, Kross explains, extending the popularity lesson she gave me before. Landing mainstream roles (like playing a porn star in an episode of The League, as Kross did in 2011) means making new fans who will trail the star back to porn. The Crossover Star of the Year award, one of the A.V.N.’s “most coveted,” says Kross, recognizes the performer with the most mainstream currency. Kross has been nominated, but never won. She has high hopes for 2014.

Unlike Kross, Pierce was still new by Measure B’s birth. He didn’t understand as she did that the game is Exposure: porn star with the most by day’s end wins. Or that lawsuits are in-bounds. To him, porn wasn’t a job or a business, but a fun way to pass time that he incidentally was paid for—how lucky. So he stayed buoyant, romantic. Fell in love every day. Signed onto suits he believed in, causes he felt were worth fighting for.

But while his name lines the top of porn’s suit, producers are probing escape routes. Kross travels out of L.A. County by car, Pierce himself is flown to Ibiza. Even Cambria, who maintains that things are progressing as planned—“We have filed challenging constitutionality and our motion for a preliminary injunction is pending,” he recently wrote me—says “company after company is stopping production, moving somewhere else.”

Why should they stay? The opposition is surging: in mid-April, a Central District of California judge granted the A.H.F.’s Measure B wing, Yes on B, “Leave to Intervene” in Cambria’s suit, putting the foundation—and its “huge lobbying money,” per Cambria—officially in the fight. Two weeks later, California Assembly Bill 332, a statewide version of B, cleared the state’s Committee on Labor and Employment in a unanimous, bipartisan vote. Any further and the barebacked porn dude is an endangered species.

Even Kross, jaded, doesn’t think porn’s suit stands a chance. And she’s its female lead.

“I don’t think we’ll win. That’s how it is,” she tells me. “That’s the world.”

The A.H.F. sure doesn’t mind porn’s fatalism. To the foundation, thousands of porn jobs fleeing the County is a healthy sacrifice.

“I don’t give a shit about their jobs,” McGrath tells me. “Are these the types of jobs we need in California?”

Pierce is flagging at work. Porn is familial—its intimacy fast and deep—but not communal, the average performer departing forever after three months. It’s fun, but only until abuse rears or profits wilt. He loves the play, and for him the going is still good, so he’ll linger for now. But he’s learned from Measure B, from its loud, limp suit. And he’ll reposition.

“Imagine every day you fuck a girl and fall in love,” Pierce tells me as he turns onto a dusky L.A. highway and I fail miserably for the hundredth time to fathom what he asks.

“But it’s just a fantasy world, and they throw it away when they’re done.”

The Witness

I had just transferred to the number 1 train at 96th Street heading uptown. I grabbed a seat, earphones in. I was holding a cup of coffee. It was a humid Saturday morning.

I barely noticed him get out of his seat. I switched the song on my iPhone and looked up and saw him standing at the door in between the cars. I thought he was relieving himself. Gross, I thought, but weirder things have happened on the subway. He stood there. The train was moving fast when he leaped.

A man jumped from his seat and pulled the emergency brake. The train came to a screeching halt.

I was panicky and claustrophobic. I also felt the quick rush of guilt knowing that I was in no danger. There were none of the familiar announcements from the loudspeaker about “being delayed because of train traffic ahead of us,” or “we are being held momentarily by the train’s dispatcher.” We sat there waiting.

In the days and months that followed I replayed the incident in my head over and over again. It seemed so unreal that I often questioned whether what I saw actually happened or if I dreamed it all up. What always made it real again was not the image of a man jumping but the memory of the jolt the train made as it ran over his body.

I needed to know who this man was. I looked in the newspapers but found very little. I learned that his name was Dwight Brown and that he was 27 years old. He lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Then the trail dried up. It was as if this man’s trace of life vanished. I thought if I could find more about this man, meet his family and friends, I would be able to make sense of that morning.

June 9, 2012 was a drab day in New York City. By 9 a.m. it had started drizzling. The forecast called for heavy rain later in the day. The air conditioning on the subway was blasting. I was freezing as I sat on the train. I instantly regretted my decision to carry an iced coffee. I was prepared with a sweater but had goose bumps all over my legs.

The train became uncomfortably warm as it stood still in between the two stations. Passengers unzipped their rain jackets and took off their sweaters. Women pulled their hair back in to ponytails. The electricity was turned off so first responders could safely climb down to the tracks and assess the situation. The already dim underground turned even darker with the lights off. My memories of that morning are in a sepia-like tone. The dim lighting in combination with the yellow and orange seats of the 1 train created an Instagram filter atmosphere.

The Saturday morning crowd is different from the rest of the week. There are no businessmen with briefcases. You don’t see party-going twenty somethings ready for a night out. The Saturday morning crowd is laid-back. Families and friends head to brunch. The more ambitious head for an early morning workout.

“I’m going to miss my 5 o’clock flight to Germany,” a woman said, obviously annoyed. Her detachment to the situation was baffling.

Five p.m. flight, I wondered? It was still 9:30 in the morning. We couldn’t possibly be stuck underground for that long, I reassured myself.

For the rest of the day I carried on as nothing had happened. It was Saturday night after all. I met my family for Venezuelan arepas for dinner. I later met friends to watch the Boston Celtics playoff game against the Miami Heat. I told very few people what I saw earlier that day. To those I told, I did not elaborate. I did not tell them I took a very expensive cab ride from Columbia University campus back to my Brooklyn apartment because I did not want to ride the subway again. By not talking about it, I hoped the image burnt into my brain would fade.

It never faded. Neither did my curiosity about witnessing death. If I couldn’t find out more about the jumper, perhaps I might find some clarity in talking with others who, like me, had been proximate to death.

Matt Shaw was the youngest of seven siblings. On the Fourth of July he went out for a Snickers bar at about 11:30 p.m. He chatted with his friends near the A.K. Houses on E. 130th Street and Lexington Avenue. Moments later, a stray bullet tore through his abdomen. Shaw was one of the dozen victims of deadly shootings citywide over the Independence Day weekend.

Matt’s older sister Jay-Shika and his mother Paula opened up about Matt. Jay-Shika shared childhood memories of her “spoiled little brother.” Paula happily talked about her son. She did not want him living in the city during the summer. The violence that tears through New York City terrified her. She recounted stories of her quiet and introverted son. She told me about her unfathomable heartbreak.

Matt’s death shattered Paula’s life. But I cannot put myself in her shoes. Matt’s death was personal for Paula. I did not know Dwight. I barely even got a look of his face.

Hopefully the woman caught her 5 p.m. flight to Germany. We were underground for almost two hours.

Passengers were ushered toward the back of the train. Many questioned the MTA officers’ decision to pack us all in the back. The air conditioning was still off. There was still no clear evacuation plan.

I felt safer being around the people who also witnessed the jump. The crowds were now mixed. I made sure to keep an eye on someone from my car. I looked for the man who pulled the emergency brake. He was my age. Maybe he was a bit older. With his striped blue polo shirt he looked like a preppy LL Cool J. His round face and wide smile exuded a sense of calm I needed.

We stood around for about an hour and a half. The police officers that had arrived on the train told us we’d be getting out of there. The electricity came back on. Cold air flowed through the train again. Another empty train was brought from 96th Street. The two trains created one extremely long runway back to the platform. There was a sizeable gap where the two trains met. It was ironic how we were asked to jump from one train to another given what had just happened.

Firefighters, police officers and paramedics got straight to work when they arrived. The firefighters held fire extinguishers, axes, flashlights and other large, heavy gear I did not recognize. Passengers pulled out their iPhones to take photos and videos. The firefighters looked like celebrities walking down a red carpet.

We were told to keep in a single file line on the right side of the train while evacuating.
“Don’t look to your left,” officers yelled, helping us avoid seeing anything too graphic. “Just keep walking.”

All around me were men and women who, by the nature of their work, encounter anonymous death all the time.

“I am the one who picks up the people who jump off the train,” M tells me. She is a paramedic with 23 years of experience. She’s experienced “every horrific thing you can think of, have read in the news or seen on television.”

M has worked all over the city. She was stationed on the Lower East Side where drugs and crime ran rampant. She recounts shootings, stabbings and overdoses in abandoned buildings of Alphabet City. Porn, drugs and crime overran Midtown.

“What you saw on the subway is old news,” she says. “We see that all the time. Somebody fell, slipped, or was pushed on the tracks and lost an arm, a leg or his life. It was just the norm.”

I explain that what I saw that June morning wasn’t the norm for me.

“You can’t take it home with your or else you can’t work, you can’t function,” she says. “If you take every amputation or every horrific thing home with you, you won’t survive.”

She tells me that she is only human. Of course the things she sees get to her. She’s cried. She’s had heart palpitations. Incidents involving children and the elderly – those who can’t protect themselves – affect her most. There are things that have stuck with her, years after she stopped working. After holding the lifeless bodies of drowned children, M never touched her young children when they were wet out of a bath. She always made sure her hands were touching a towel before she dried them off.

“People think we have ice water running through our veins,” she says. “We don’t. As a medic you just have to react to what you see or else you will hurt people.”

Medics talk to one another. M talked to her colleagues. She’s cried with them. At times, she even joked with them. These are all mechanisms to cope with the job. Her friends don’t understand what she’s been through. Her colleagues know the emotions.

“You can’t always carry everything on your own,” she says. “How many times a day can you carry a body bag and survive?”

M justifies my reaction to witnessing death as a product of my circumstances. I am not an “adrenaline junkie.” I do not love the fear of the unknown. Medics live for that rush. The gore becomes a part of the job.

M insists that my mind will heal and learn to deal with the situation if I truly want it to.

I’ve played out multiple scenarios in my head. What if I had left home 15 minutes early that morning? Why did I look up when I did when my iPhone or a magazine usually distracts me during the long commute?

I walked back to the 96th Street platform through the makeshift tunnel. A police officer asked if I was okay. I was shocked but I was fine. I was happy to see sunlight. Fresh air tasted sweet. The rain showers predicted earlier turned out to be a bust. Ambulance sirens were blaring. Police cars lights were flashing. Amidst the chaos, I hopped on the bus and traveled uptown.

The Death of “Freedom”: Last Days of a Dying School

I first visited Freedom Academy High School on a dreary March day. The clouds were hanging low and there was a sprinkling of the last of winter’s snow. Despite the gray day, I felt an unusual air of excitement while ascending the stairs to Freedom’s sixth floor lunchroom. It was Spirit Week. It was Nerd Day.

Freedom Academy is in downtown Brooklyn, and inhabits the top three floors of a seven-story former industrial space that also houses a clinic serving patients with psychiatric disabilities. The entire school of about 175 students quickly filled into the eight-table lunchroom, which offers expansive views of Lower Manhattan.

In celebration of Nerd Day, the students were decked out in black rim glasses and short pants, looking not too dissimilar from some of the borough’s hipster class. Lunch was the high point of the day. During lunch, there would be a contest for best nerdwear and the taping of the school’s obligatory Harlem Shake YouTube upload.

The students were excited.

“Shanice, girl you look like a nerd,” one girl yelled excitingly as her friend walked into the cafeteria.

I initially suspected that as a stranger in this small school taking notes in the middle of the lunchroom, I was being overlooked because of all the day’s excitement. Chris, a tenth grader who commutes 45 minutes each way from East New York, later explained that strange observers are not an unusual sight at the school. Most of these visitors, Chris told me were, from the Department of Education.

Spirit Week’s timing, which had been planned back in the fall, was both fortunate and disheartening.

“We are just having fun,” Chris told me. “We don’t have to think about next year right now.”

The students were celebrating a school that had just six days prior been deemed a failure of such a magnitude that it necessitated the school being dismantled by this school year’s end. This story is a partial chronicle of Freedom’s slow demise—why it happened and how it feels to its inhabitants. A school is a community and like the death of any community, its passing has not been easy.


Originally an alternative school for some of the city’s hardest to educate, Freedom in its current form was born in 2002. Like the reform movement that advocates closing schools based on student scores on state administered standardized tests, the reform movement that opened Freedom was designed to finally close the achievement gap between black and Latino inner-city public school students and their more affluent peers.

During the second half of the 1990s, educators, school administrators, parents, community organizers and philanthropic groups all galvanized around a new idea to transform the urban school landscape in this country. The premise was simple. Large, impersonal inner-city schools were to blame for dismal academic outcomes. In response, these groups, broadly referred to as the small schools movement, advocated for large schools to be replaced by smaller schools, schools that fostered closer bonds between educators, students and parents.

These were the principles of Freedom’s founding, principles that remain ingrained in the culture of Freedom. Each student I talked to used the exact same phrase, “small school,” in defense of their school.

C, B, C, B, F, F

Data show that for many years, Freedom was doing a decent job at its tough mission of graduating low income, minority students. The school was posting above average graduation rates and from 2007 to 2010 received passing marks–C, B, C, B–on the all-important progress reports that are used in closure decisions. But these grades fell off a cliff in 2011. Since then the school has received two Fs.

In 2011, the school’s four-year graduation rate plummeted to 56 percent from 70.7 percent the previous year. That number slid further the next year to 50 percent. These numbers are DOE’s primary justification for closing Freedom. Freedom supporters counter that the school accepts any kid and often needs more than four years to get their students to graduation. They point to Freedom’s six-year graduation rates, which have continuously been above 80 percent.

Freedom students offered several explanations for the precipitous decline: a shrinking staff, the absence of any extracurricular activities, and the school taking in “problem kids.”

Jeremy Del Rio, the founder of 20/20 Vision for Schools, a non-profit group that brings resources into schools under the specter of closure, has been working with Freedom since it got its first F.

“I came to Freedom with promises that DOE would help turnaround the school by bringing in new personnel, funds and programs.” Del Rio said. “None of this has happened. These students come in two or three grade levels behind. They just need more resources.”

Students say that the only new resources at Freedom since last January is the arrival of unpaid advocates like Del Rio and Susanne Veder. Del Rio and Veder have conducted field trips, brought in Broadway actors, and started dance classes. Veder is at the school almost daily working with students and teachers to produce a blog about the students’ experiences at home and in school.

Susanne does her sweeps

Getting off the elevator on the fifth floor at Freedom, I found myself in a dim, almost prison-like, stairwell. In the stairwell, the cinderblock walls are painted gray and there is mesh fencing around the stairs to prevent falls. I walked through the double doors into Freedom, to a hallway of blinding fluorescents, inspirational posters, and bulletin boards. Susanne Veder was already there.

I first met Susanne at an Upper West Side Starbucks in early February. We talked for hours about her history working in corporate America, how she raised her two children, and her role at Freedom. Even after that four-hour chat, I had a hard time picturing exactly what Susanne did at Freedom.

Now Susanne was patrolling the hallway, though it was difficult to determine in what capacity. Not that the hallways were unattended. Freedom’s Principal Alyson Forde, a tough but graceful woman, who often pulls her hair into a tight bun, had long before assumed the difficult job of maintaining order at her school – with the assistance of four unarmed NYPD school safety agents patrolling the halls. Forde liked to handle discipline herself.

She would yell, “Gentlemen, I’m not saying this again, lets get a move on,” to two boys lingering in the hallway during lunchtime. This was not their first warning but it was their last. The young men, still trying to play it cool, picked up their pace and headed upstairs to the cafeteria.

In the hallway, Susanne spotted Duncan, a senior from Bed-Stuy, had been kicked out of class. Duncan was upset. Susanne asked him what happened and calmed him down. She asked him to escort me to the classroom where her always-changing group of students gathered to work on the various projects Susanne had taken it upon herself to launch at the school. Duncan, a lanky and mindful dresser, and I chatted as we climbed the stairs. We talked about our mutual hatred of the SATs and how he and his friends play keyboards on Sundays for their church.

Susanne overhearing our conversation chimed in, “Duncan, you’re a natural aren’t you?”

Duncan responded confidently, “We be killing it.”

“Why didn’t you play at the talent show?” Susanne then asked. “I just thought that everyone would…” Duncan trailed off.

After she spends her mornings taking it upon herself to do damage control, Susanne gathers with students in the afternoon. From this room, she runs her internship program that works with the students to create the blog, plans cultural excursions, and tutors for Regents exams.

Joining the group this day was Susanne’s son, Marshall, Marshall is a videographer and together with his friend, Carol, was working with the students on a short documentary about the end of Freedom.

Duncan was named the film’s “sound guy” and was given the “bootleg boom,” which was essentially a recorder attached to a long pole.

“You’ll get your first video credit,” Marshall told Duncan.

The plan was simple. Susanne, Marshall, and I would ask the students what Freedom meant to them and how they felt about its pending closure.

“The chemistry can be really powerful,” Susanne warned us, “but you never know what you are going to get.”

The students walked into the class in that unmistakably teenage way, appearing both confident and guarded. But their reserve soon melted away. This was still their space, and quickly we just became props in it.

Seeing Duncan’s newfound role as sound guy, the group clapped. “Duncan! I know him,” yelled Tasha from across the room.

Kevin, a 12th grader, and Kurt, an 11th grader, were two Jamaican brothers who looked as if they had planned their matching outfits before coming to school. They are charmers. Kevin walked up to one girl’s desk and asked half-jokingly, “Sontique can I sit next to you?”

The recording went on for two hours. Some of the students there were on free period, others, as the group expanded, arrived from classes from which they had been kicked out.

What did they like about Freedom?

“I came here in grade 10 and I met my best friend here,” said Angelique, a 12th grader. “I know everyone’s name here, even the freshmen.”

“The whole school knows your name within two weeks,” added Akin, an 11th grader.

“I was very antisocial at first because of my accent,” said Kevin, who has a heavier accent than his younger brother. “But I soon made friends here.”

“I’ve learned you can trust people here,” added Sandy.

Then came an exchange between Angelique and William, a Latino 11th grader, one of the school’s few non-black students.

“I’ve felt like an outsider even here,” William said. “I have struggled with depression and am very sensitive.”

“Is that why you make your masks?” Angelique asked tentatively. “Is it because of your depression?”

William smiled and said, “That’s one reason.”

In his free time, William, an aspiring artist, makes the sort of pre-Colombian folk-art masks often worn by Mexican wrestlers. The lead dancer on Nerd Day’s Harlem Shake video was wearing one of them.

The conversation turned to other problems. Sontique, a 12th grader, whose Far Rockaway home was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, was allowed time to vent about the troubles she was having with her grandmother. “She just thinks everything has to go a certain way,” she said.

Marshall then asked the students how they felt about Susanne, his mother.

“The first time she came, we were like who is this white lady? She is going to be gone in less than a month,” said Angelique. “But she really cares. She is on a level with my mother. Everything she says she will do, she does it.”

Finally, Marshall asked how they felt about Freedom’s closure.

“There are problems in every school, but they make it feel like it’s our fault,” Sandy said. She paused. “Maybe we should have worked harder.”

The tone then grew hostile and conspiratorial. Many of the students are longtime residents of Brooklyn, a borough known for its gentrification, and they suspected the invisible hand of developers were at work.

“There is nothing we could have done. They want the building,” said Angelique. “I hear they want to make it into condos, that’s why they are closing us. It’s all because of the Barclays Center.”

“They are going to put in a gym,” said Sontique. “But they never could put one in for us. You want to change this into condos, but you didn’t ever take the time to change it into a school.”

“The whole story is a farce,” added Akin, who wants to be a musician. “I really believe this was a setup. They wanted the building, so they didn’t give us anything, so that we would fail. We use to have a nurse and a Spanish teacher, now we just have the bare minimum.”

“The gym teacher has to bring his own equipment and take us to the park,” Angelique added.

“Some of these teachers try so hard,” said Sontique. The city, she went on, is “just throwing that away. They rush to close us down, but not to help us.”

A small hearing

The Department of Education held a hearing on Freedom’s closure on February 25 in Freedom’s cafeteria. It was clear from its setup that these hearings are usually contentious. Two bulky men were tasked with manning the microphone to keep speakers from going over their two-minute allotment.

Tom Bennet, a representative from the teachers union, insisted on holding his own microphone. When his request was denied he pointed at the window that overlooks Manhattan and yelled, “With this mayor none of us have a voice. The people do not have any kind of power.” Eventually people stopped using the microphone all together, opting to shout at the officials behind the table.

Behind the table sat a team of district and school level officials. David Weiner, a DOE deputy chancellor, and Karen Watts, the superintendent of Brooklyn high schools, were there to argue for closure. They shared the table with four parents on Freedom’s School Leadership Team who argued against closure and Principal Forde who remained silent throughout the meeting. There was also an empty chair. David Goldsmith, the president of the area’s parent oversight committee, refused to take part due to his opposition to all school closures.

Weiner started the meeting by arguing in favor of closure: “We must hold every school to the same standard of excellence because every child deserves it.” He went on. “We will hear some success stories tonight, and we honor those but we must think about the others, they deserve better.”

Weiner pointed to the graduation rate and the results of a parent survey that placed the school in the bottom fifth percentile of city schools in terms of how safe parents think their children are at school. However, nearly 80 percent of students and over 40 percent of the teachers surveyed reported feeling safe at Freedom, though that number plummeted last year.

Weiner then explained that current students who are not graduating this year would be offered spots at high schools in either Brooklyn or in their home borough.

But the long, combative meeting that DOE expected didn’t materialize. The meeting was over in less than 45 minutes.

Not one parent or student in the audience spoke. Instead most of the speakers were anti-closure activists there to protest all closures, not just Freedom’s. They were there to air their grievances against the whole of Mayor Bloomberg’s educational reform policies. “Why are you closing this school?” asked Mariana Russo, the Brooklyn representative on the Citywide Council for High Schools, the city’s parent oversight committee for high schools. “Aren’t we closing big schools to create small schools like this one? With funds and extra support this school will succeed.”

Some of the speakers did know Freedom well. “These kids come in two or three grade levels behind,” argued Jeremy Del Rio. “This is why you have to look at the six year graduation rate which is at 84.5 percent.” Del Rio also complained about the timing of the announcement in January, right before state tests. “Basically what they told the school community right before this big test is, ‘You’re a bunch of failures.’”

“We need to educate children,” Susanne shouted. “We cannot close schools. We cannot just throw children into 60 different schools. It does not work.”

All the while, as speakers insulted the district officials and praised Principal Forde — for her insistence on accepting any child and her hard work to get these children to graduation — Forde sat stoically.

24 schools are sentenced to death

On March 11 the Panel for Educational Policy met to vote on 24 closure proposals. There are 13 voting members of the PEP, five members each appointed by a borough president and eight mayoral appointees. The factions were clear the entire night. The eight mayoral appointees and the Staten Island borough president appointee voted in favor of all DOE’s proposals. The other four borough appointees voted against.

This meeting was largely ceremonial. No school has ever survived a PEP closure vote. But that didn’t stop the meeting from being contentious.

It was a beautiful place to make a last stand; the two-tiered Brooklyn Tech auditorium has gold plated fixtures and an endless amount of ornate molding. It was hard to believe that this public school, less than three miles from Freedom, could be so much grander.

There was a large crowd. Some were there to protest all school closures. Others were there to make last ditch efforts to save their schools. Freedom’s delegation numbered just five: Susanne, Jeremy, Principal Forde, Assistant Principal Collins, and Kathryn Russell, the parent of a 12th grader.

On at least half a dozen occasions, the crowd’s chants halted the meeting’s progress, turning a meeting with pre-determined outcomes into a seven-hour debate.

“Don’t phase ‘em out, fix ‘em up,” shouted the pack on several occasions. “They say shut down, we say fight back.”

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan representative on the PEP, joined the crowd in calling the nine pro-reform members, “the mayor’s puppets.”

One non-voting student member of the PEP, a high school senior whose school in the Bronx has been on and off the closure list over the years and was just a week before again pulled off the list, asked “How can you learn when you are trying to save your school.”

“These are lives,” he said. “This needs to be about the students.”

Only two closure proposals called for the schools to shutter at the end of this school year, Freedom and M.S. 45, a small East Harlem middle school. The other 22 schools would be phased out, allowing students to graduate from their current schools but then shutting them. DOE argued that Freedom and M.S. 45 served such small populations that phase-outs were not practical.

Public comment began at 9:30 p.m. Susanne spoke just before 10:00 p.m. “I know you are going to close my school,” she said. “But I implore you to keep my kids together.” After her two minutes were up, Susanne walked to the back of the auditorium, where Principal Forde was sitting to talk about next steps, she then left the auditorium and asked one of the NYPD’s school safety agents to walk her to the subway.

After three hours of public comment – the high point being when a group of unassuming elementary schoolchildren accused the panel of “sabotage” and “educational murder” – the panel began voting at 12:45 a.m.

The clerk read out the title of each of the 52 proposals, at times sounding robotic.

“The Proposed Opening and Co-location of a New Elementary School (12X314) with Existing School P.S. 050 Clara Barton (12X050) in Building X050 Beginning in 2013-2014.”

The vote never changed, eight for, four against, but each time the clerk counted the hands and announced: “Eight for, four against, the measure passes.”

Finally at 12:55 a.m., they arrived at Proposal 20: “The Proposed Closure of Freedom Academy High School (13K509) at the End of Year 2012-2013.” The measure was approved by a vote of eight to four.

Schools don’t have life expectancies. As students that fact can at times feel unbearable but eventually offers comfort. You are a part of a community that is ostensibly timeless. But a sense of community is immeasurable and didn’t prove sufficient to save Freedom.

A Post-Mortem

I returned to Freedom, just a few days after the PEP officially closed their school. Marshall, who was still filming, Susanne, and I gathered on the seventh floor and sat down with a group of students.

The conversation was brief that day and focused on what the non-graduating students were worried about.

“I’m really actually very shy,” said a freshman. “I’m really scared. I can’t do another day one [at a new school].”

“I have made at least a handful of close, close friends here. I will make new friends but it’s going to be hard,” added Briana, another freshman. “No one liked me in middle school because how I talked. They said ‘I talked white.’” But Briana does not idealize Freedom. “90 percent of the kids are like 20, they are not supposed to be in high school,” Briana said. “They would be kicked out at any other school. I get that they need to be given second chances, but this is a small school and they are really bringing down our scores and stuff.”

Just as before, the conversation turned accusatory.

“They’re not hearing our voice. They should have come and met with us and gotten our opinion,” said Kevin, the older Jamaican brother.

“They don’t care. I’m angry but I didn’t expect them to come and talk to us,” replied Akin.

“But if you don’t consult with us how do you know what’s really going on?” added Duncan. “It feels like they didn’t want us to be heard.”

What comes after Freedom?

I originally thought that the small school rhetoric was just a talking point in favor of their school. But I have come to see that these students are close, so close that they like and, more importantly, trust one another enough to do wholly uncool things like the Macarena in the middle of the lunchroom.

The students told me that they were afraid of being bullied at their new schools and of losing friends and teachers. One important question, however, did not come up: will we end up at more academically rigorous schools?

Their fate is difficult to determine. As of mid-April, the vast majority of them did not know where they would be attending school next year. Two of the students I met at Freedom told me that they only transferred to Freedom after their original schools were closed. There is no data indicating whether New York students end up at better schools after their school closes, but research done in other cities have shown that students often do not. According to a study done in Chicago, the majority of students from 44 closed schools did not find placement in better schools.

Susanne believes that the DOE will scatter “her” students across the city and as a result some will fall through the cracks and never graduate. She is looking for funding for a program that will allow her to continue to work with former Freedom students.

But in the long-run Freedom’s closure is not just about its current students; it is an attempt by the city to save future students from what it has deemed a failing school.

But this is an abstraction for those directly affected by Freedom’s closure. For them, their community is being eliminated by powerful outsiders who don’t understand their ways and don’t want to.

“It’s like the government is coming in and breaking up your family,” remarked a usually quiet freshman. “Would you want that?”

The Burden of Survival: How the Nazis’ Legacy Never Leaves Their Victims

In late February, my aunt Micki received a birthday card sent from my grandfather’s house in Lakewood.

This was good news. No one in my family had talked to my grandfather in three months. His phone was disconnected, and no one knew where he was.

In January my great aunt Rita called from Israel. Rita told my mother that my grandfather had shown up at his old house in Jerusalem, wanting to evict the tenants staying at the house. He had not visited Israel since 1965. We contacted a lawyer he was using in Israel, but the lawyer refused to put us in contact with my grandfather.

“He missed Thanksgiving, but he never misses a goddamn birthday card,” my mother half chuckled over the phone. This was true. I have received three cards from my grandfather every year of my life: one for my birthday, one for my brother’s birthday, and one for Hanukkah. I have never spent a birthday with him, but I always get the card. I had been trying to track down my grandfather for two months before Micki got the card. I wanted to write about him, to tell his story. I had spent the past two months preparing to interview him. I interviewed the rest of my family, researched the places he lived throughout his life, and I combed through the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem’s records in a vain attempt to find the precise location where his siblings were murdered. When my mother told me he was back in New Jersey, I was apprehensive but eager.

After my mother told me about the card, I called my grandfather. His phone was still disconnected. I called back my mother and asked if I should just show up at his door.

“Do not surprise him,” she warned. “That’s a really bad idea.”

Chapter 1- Tata

When I was a child I could not pronounce safta, the Hebrew word for grandmother, and so my grandmother became tata, which coincidentally is the Yiddish word for father. My tata is the type of person who sneaks her grandchildren dessert when our parents are not looking. In her mind, we never have enough to eat. She bought me a copy of Dumb and Dumber when I was ten because, “I thought you would like it.” My tata always tells stories with a smile on her face.

I was always conscious of my grandparents’ past. The idea of the Holocaust has been within my psyche for as long as I can remember, but growing up I did not think of it as a tragedy. My tata never complained about her past. She told me stories of her childhood in a Siberian labor camp as if it was a big game. She would tell me how her family had their own room when everyone else in the camp was forced to bunk together, or how her mother managed to put together a Passover Seder. It was exciting.

At the time, I did not know that my family had their own room because they were quarantined after my great grandfather rubbed blood and mucus onto a handkerchief to convince the guards he had tuberculosis. I would not find out until later that the only reason they were able to have a Passover Seder was because my great grandmother sold contraband on the black market, and managed to scrounge together a meager meal to celebrate the holiday.

I did not think it was strange that I saw tata every holiday and every family occasion, but that the first time I remember seeing my saba, the Hebrew word for grandfather, was when my uncle Mikey graduated from college. I was six years old.

Chapter 2- Saba

When I was a child, my saba’s stories were told in a similar tone as my tata’s, but with similar crucial omissions. I remember being told that my great grandfather led a partisan brigade in the woods. They fought the Nazis, and stole cows from farmers. I remember the story of my grandfather jumping from a moving train. It felt like an adventure.

The first few times I saw my grandfather, my mother warned me that he was different. She explained that he had led a hard life, and that I should be careful what I said around him. I learned that lesson the hard way.

At a dinner where my entire family was together, I made the mistake of discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had just finished my freshman year at Tufts University, and I recently decided to major in Middle Eastern studies and political science. My grandfather wanted me to be an engineer or a physicist. Before I went to Somerville to begin college, he warned me to stay away from politics and girls. He wanted me to focus on math. It was hard to explain to him where my passions truly lay.

At the time, he was designing laser guidance systems for the Navy. He has two PhDs in various disciplines of engineering and physics. At this point, my family has lost count of his Master’s degrees. Life for him was about numbers and enduring. He spent his days working, studying, and exercising. Anything else was a distraction. Living was a distraction.

At the dinner, I was telling my family about my inspiring Jordanian professor. I was expressing my admiration at this professor’s ability to represent both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even though he had served in the Jordanian army. My saba fought against the Jordanian army during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, and the memory visibly lingered. He glared at me. The veins on his neck pulsated.

He did not yell; rather, in an almost rough whisper he said to me in his thick Eastern European accent, “They all want us dead.” He was clutching his glass by the stem so hard that I thought it was going to break. Then he turned to my mother and growled “You send him to school for this?”

This was the first and only time I have seen his anguish emerge to the surface.

I left the table.

Chapter 3- Hate

Three years later, I graduated from college. My saba was visibly proud. Middle Eastern Studies degree and all. At one point he took me aside, “They tried to exterminate us,” he said, cracking a rare smile, “But look where you are today. Never forget that.”

After the ceremony, my family went to my house in Somerville where we sat on my lawn, eating and drinking wine. In the midst of the celebration, my grandfather’s eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed. He smacked his head onto the pavement, and then came to. We gave him water, and brought him into the shade. He was in shock, and had a lump on his head, but otherwise he seemed fine. He was in the sun all day, and we attributed the collapse to dehydration and fatigue.

He went home to New Jersey with my cousin who lives in New York. A couple of hours after they left, my cousin called my aunt. She seemed out of breath, “Saba lost consciousness again on the train. We are in the hospital.”

My family got on the first plane to New York. My grandfather’s heart had stopped on the train, and he flat-lined at the hospital. He had to be resuscitated twice. He was attached to an external pacemaker, which stabilized his condition. His doctor said he needed an operation to install a pacemaker, or he would die.

My grandfather did not trust the doctor. His three children pleaded with him to submit to the operation, so he insisted on seeing the schematics of the pacemaker. The doctor was taken aback by the unusual request, but managed to find the plans for a pacemaker. My grandfather studied the schematics, and quizzed the doctor concerning the physics behind the device. Only after my grandfather understood exactly how a pacemaker works did he agree to the operation.

My grandfather grew up malnourished because of the Holocaust. He is only 5’5”, but extremely strong. His obsession with exercise borders on addiction. In his 70s, he boasted about how many miles he could run, and how he could still do a back flip. He has always had a powerful build to complement his powerful presence.

My aunt Micki recalls him lying in the hospital bed — “I have never seen him that frail, or that weak. He seemed like a different person with all those tubes sticking out of him.” A rabbi came to his bedside before the anesthesia was administered. My grandfather, an atheist since the Holocaust who contends that no one in his family should fast on Yom Kippur because, “I fasted enough for everyone,” was initially unresponsive.

Then the rabbi asked him, “How are you doing?”

“I have hate in my heart,” said my saba.

The rabbi reminded my grandfather that he had a loving family who were with him now. The rabbi asked him, “Why do you have hate in your heart?”

My mother recalls that my grandfather stared at the rabbi with a look she had seen many times while growing up, “that piercing steely look that is full of pain and hatred.” My saba responded, “One cannot translate it into words.”

Chapter 4- Survival

In the early 1940s, when the Ukraine was under Nazi occupation, my saba’s family was living in the Bursztyn Ghetto. They were forced to move there from their hometown, Wonilow. Other than my great-grandfather Mendel, who was placed in a labor camp at the beginning of the war, the entire family was still together.

It was a family of six, and the rations given to them by the Nazis were not enough to feed everyone. My grandfather was eight years old when the Germans reached the Ukraine in 1941. A large brick wall surrounded the Bursztyn Ghetto. The wall cut through certain buildings, and so in these buildings there was a Jewish side and an Aryan side. Many of the rooms on the Aryan side were unoccupied. Jewish children regularly took out bricks on the Jewish side in order to pass undetected into town.

My grandfather has translucent blue eyes, a small nose, and pale skin, so he could pass for a non-Jewish Ukrainian. He would sneak through the wall to do odd jobs or trade for food. Then he would sneak back into the ghetto at night and bring the food to his family.

On one occasion he crawled through his usual spot in the wall to find a Ukrainian man living in the Aryan part of the room. The man kicked my saba in the face and stomach. He yelled, “Get out, you lousey Jew! Next time I’ll hand you in to the Germans!” By lousey, the man meant that he was full of lice. This was a common insult to hurl at Jews during that time because it was true. The health conditions in the ghetto were so poor that most Jews had lice. After that incident, my grandfather found a new spot in the wall to sneak into town.

The Germans would conduct Aktions, or Actions, which were series of concerted efforts to gather up as many Jews as possible to send to the death camps. These would occur inside and outside the ghetto. In one such Aktion outside of the ghetto, my grandfather was caught trying to work for food. It was the summer of 1942.

He was brought to a walled-off train station. A large courtyard was inside the wall in front of a house where the train attendant lived. In the courtyard were hundreds of Jews being watched by German guards. They were waiting for the train to come to take them to a concentration camp. For children, this meant inevitable death. For everyone else, it meant probable death, but at the time the horrors of concentration camps were only rumors.

The Jews were not allowed to move, stand, speak, or use a toilet. They sat in the courtyard frightened and helpless for days on end, defecating in their clothing. A Jewish Russian prisoner of war was among the captives. The first night my grandfather was there, the Russian snuck around warning people, “Try to save yourself. You are going to your death. Join me, and we will escape.”

My grandfather recalled many of the women captives telling the man in hushed whispers, “You just want to start trouble.” They warned the others, “Do not listen to him, he is a Communist.” My saba listened to the Russian—he was the only one. The Russian told my saba, “Tomorrow night we escape. Just follow me.”

The next night the two crawled together towards the wall, my saba at his heels. It was pitch black. When they reached the wall the Russian approached a hole he had already begun to dig. He widened the hole under the wall, and stuck his head out the other side.

My grandfather recalled seeing the glare of a flashlight, before hearing a muffled blast. The guards had stuck the gun in the Russian’s mouth to mute the sound of the blast. Blood and brains splattered all over my saba, but the guards did not see him. My saba crawled back to the courtyard with his clothes soaked in blood, and stole clean laundry from the home of the train attendant. He then rolled around in mud and feces to appear dirty, so the Germans would not know he tried to escape.

That was his first attempt at escape.

Eventually, the train arrived. The trains used to transport Jews were cattle cars with a wide gap between the bottom of the car and the ground. The Germans began to order the Jews onto the platform. As my saba went to the top of the platform he saw the wide separation between the bottom of the car and the ground. He saw an opportunity.

He ran across the platform, jumped onto the tracks, and dashed under the train unnoticed. He made it into town. He was returning to the ghetto when a Jewish policeman recognized him. The Nazis had appointed Jewish policemen to do their dirty work. They would give them special privileges to turn against their brethren. The policeman wore a yellow leather jacket. He grabbed my saba by the collar, and hauled him back to the train station.

My grandfather’s third attempt at escape was identical to the second. He ran under the tracks again, but this time the Germans were wiser. An officer caught him, and beat him so savagely my saba blacked out.

He came to in a cattle car. His body ached from the beating, and he saw bruises running down his arms and legs. The train was moving. A man sitting next to him pointed to an open slot in the top of the cattle car and said, “I cannot jump out of the train, I am too big. Jewish boy save yourself.”At nightfall, the man hoisted my saba through the slot on the top of the train. He jumped off the train and into the neighboring fields. He walked back to the ghetto. He walked back to his family.

And so he survived.

Flash forward twenty years: It is the early 1960’s in Lakewood, New Jersey. My grandfather is visiting Max Karp, a friend from the war. They are in a room full of greeners, Jewish immigrants to the United States who came from Eastern Europe. There is a knock on the door.

Max opens the door to reveal the Jewish policeman that turned my grandfather in to the Nazis 20 years earlier. The man walks in with his American wife. My grandfather’s rage was uncontrollable.

“I saw white,” he told my mother.

My saba went to Max and said, “Do you know who this man is?”

“Yes we know,” said Max, “but what can be done?” My saba walked up to the man’s wife and told her, “Your husband helped the Germans.” The man abruptly left.

Chapter 5- Family

Living in the ghetto with my saba was his mother Frida, his older sister Perl, his older brother Hersh, his younger brother Yakov (whom I am named after), and his youngest brother Zalman (whom my brother is named after).

One day my saba returned to the ghetto with food from town only to find his building deserted. It was 1943, and my grandfather was now ten years old. All the doors were open. There had been an Aktion while he was in town, and his family was gone. He sat on the stoop of his building, in a state of shock. He waited there for a few hours not knowing what to do when all of a sudden his brother Zalman ran up. He was crying hysterically.

“Moshe! Moshe!” he yelled recognizing my saba, “They took mommy!”

The other children had escaped, but Zalman was taken with Frida during the Aktion to a holding area. While they were waiting to be deported, Frida saw an opening between the guards. She pushed Zalman forward, and told him “Run and hide!” Zalman ran until he saw my saba—he was five years old. They never saw Frida again. My family believes she was murdered at Treblinka. My mother is named after Frida.

From then the children were on their own, surviving one day at a time.  Perl, the oldest, was 12 years old. This living arrangement lasted for a few months until a man knocked on their door. It was a policeman from Wonilow. He was their father’s friend from before the war. When the family moved to the ghetto, he had agreed to take care of their German Shepherd Fifi.

“I am here to take you to your father,” said the policeman.

Chapter 6- Mendel

My great-grandfather Mendel was a strong, stocky man. In World War I he fought in a Ukrainian cavalry division of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was the sort of man whom the Jews of Wonilow turned to if they needed a problem solved by the use of physical force. People feared and respected him.

At the beginning of the war, the Nazis deported him to the Rohatyn labor camp where he was set to work with other Jews. One day, while building a road, he was carrying a large rock and made the mistake of putting it down to rest. A Ukrainian guard took a pipe and smashed him over the head. He did not fall because he knew he would be shot. He swayed until he regained his senses, and picked up the rock. The guard snarled, “The next time I hit you, you will die.”

Mendel knew that if he stayed in the camp he would be killed. He saved up his rations for a few days, and waited for an opportunity. He was working in the field, and when no one was looking, he hid in a ditch by the road. He covered himself in leaves and dirt, hoping that the dogs would not be able to catch his scent because all the smells by the road would confuse them.

He lay in the ditch, and watched the Nazis search for him with their dogs. After two days they stopped searching. He ran back to Wonilow, and found his friend the policeman. Now, the policeman told the children that he could only risk sneaking one of them out at a time from the ghetto. My saba was the first to be taken. My mother “has never had the guts” to ask my saba why he was chosen that night.

When my saba reached the policeman’s house, Fifi caught his scent. The dog came barreling out of the house, and jumped on my saba. As Fifi licked him, Mendel came outside. My saba had not seen his father for two years. They embraced and cried in each other’s arms. The policeman said that they could stay at his house until he brought the rest of the family from the ghetto. Then they had to leave.

The next night the policeman went back to the ghetto, but all the children were gone. To this day, my family does not know what happened to them. We believe they were killed at Treblinka. My mother remembers as a child listening to the radio in Israel, and hearing programs that tried to help family members who had survived the Holocaust to find one another. She and her parents would listen to the lists of names, waiting to hear: “Perl, Hersh, Yakov, Zalman, Reichbach.” But they never heard their names.

Chapter 7- The Forest

My saba hid in the woods with his father. Soon more Jews in hiding found my great-grandfather, whose reputation before the war made him a leader of a partisan unit that formed in the woods. The winter was brutal and the snow was relentless. Those partisans who did not die of cold or starvation struggled to stay warm. My saba did not have shoes and was left to wear rags on his feet. His father found a farm, smashed open the door with his axe, placed his hands on the farmer’s mouth, and growled, “Don’t open your mouth, or I’ll kill you.” He took the farmer’s shoes and left. To this day, my grandfather feels at peace when it is snowing outside because he can watch it from the warmth and safety of his home.

My saba remembers stealing a cow. He walked it to their encampment where it was slaughtered. The cow was a luxury; the partisans subsisted on rats. Meanwhile, their reputation grew. People began to call Mendel the Jewish Petliura, after Symon Petliura, a Ukrainian who died fighting the Soviets after World War I. My mother says that whenever she met someone who knew of my great-grandfather they would affectionately call her and my aunt Micki, “Petliura’s grandchildren.”

Eventually, it became too dangerous to stay in the woods, and Mendel told my saba that he had to leave. My saba found a farm where he pretended to be a gentile named Peter. He herded cattle for a year, until the Russians liberated the Ukraine.

My grandfather still could not admit he was Jewish, because even after liberation the Ukrainians were still killing Jews. He worked at the farm until one day a man on a motorcycle saw him working in a field, and to run after him. My saba ran away, but the man caught up. “Moshe!” he yelled,

“Don’t you recognize me?” My saba looked up to see the son of the policeman who had saved him from the ghetto.

The policeman’s son took my saba to Mendel, who had survived the war. They were the only remaining members of their family. As they embraced, my grandfather cried, “I don’t want to be a Jew! I don’t want to be a Jew!”

Mendel replied, “It is not a choice.”

Chapter 8- Secrets

After the war, the Jews who had survived could remain in Europe where their homes were stolen, and their murderers were their neighbors, or they could leave. Some went to the United States. My saba immigrated to Palestine, a British colony where immigration was tightly restricted for fear of worsening tensions with the Arab population. Initially my saba lived in the Ukraine with my great-grandfather and a woman named Anda who had lived with them in the forest. Mendel married Anda when the war was over. My grandfather resented Anda for usurping his dead mother’s place.

He was 14 when he left in 1946, finally making his way to Palestine, but not before being remanded to a displaced person’s camp in Cyprus.

After Israel gained independence, my grandfather joined the Israeli Air Force, which sent him to Italy to learn to fly planes. My grandfather was not much of a pilot—he was never good at landings, and so, given his modest prospects as an aviator, he took advantage of a program by Jewish social service agency, where he finally began the formal education so long denied him. He was attending a high school in Poland when, in 1955, he met my grandmother.

My tata recalls that my saba initially lied to her about the existence of his father, whom she assumed had perished in the war. Mendel, however, had since immigrated to Israel and was corresponding with my grandfather through letters. My tata discovered these letters. When she confronted my saba about keeping secrets from her, he explained that he was afraid that if she was ever caught, he did not want them to be able to torture her for information about him. By this demented logic, he was keeping her safe.

After my saba finished school, he became an officer in the Polish army. In 1956, my mother was born. My grandparents wanted to raise their children in Israel, so in 1957, they moved to Jerusalem. My saba studied to became a physicist. In time, he would be conducting research at the Hebrew University.

The family had settled into a life in Jerusalem, but the war was always present. My aunt Micki recalls the time she was playing in her yard with another child, who in the course of an argument, hit her. My saba watched this unfold from the window of his house. He raced out of the house and set off after the child who had struck his daughter. At the time, Micki thought that this was “normal” behavior. She remembers later realizing “that this was not the way parents are supposed to behave.”

In 1964, the family moved to Lakewood, New Jersey, and my saba continued his research at Columbia University. His father, who had also moved to the United States, died a year later. My saba’s family from before the war was gone. His need to protect his family verged on becoming suffocating. His emotional state began to deteriorate. At his father’s funeral he got into a fight with his 19-year-old half-brother, Abie, the child of Mendel and Anda. Mendel died of a heart attack, and my saba blamed Anda for his death. She had a daughter with another man before Mendel died, and had tried to convince Mendel it was his child. When Mendel discovered her deception he left her.

“Your mother is a whore, and she killed our father,” my grandfather told Abie.

“Your mother is a whore,” said Abie. This was unwise. My grandfather does not take well to criticism of his family. They got into a fistfight. They have not spoken since.

Still, the rest of the family loved Abie, and kept in touch despite my grandfather’s wishes. For years they kept seeing Abie a secret. “That’s how it always was,” recalls my mother, “everything was a secret.” My grandmother explains that she “told him only what he wanted to hear” because otherwise my saba was impossible to live with.

My saba did not allow my mother or Micki to date or have sleep overs. My mother was not allowed to go to her prom; Micki snuck out to hers. They would lie to him about boyfriends, and about going to friends’ houses. My uncle Mikey was born in 1969, and even as a child knew to keep secrets from my grandfather. My saba lived in a world where his rules controlled those he loved, and kept them within the confines of his protection.

My tata could not bear this. Finally, in 1981, after 26 years of marriage, she divorced him. Their divorce, rare as it was for their generation, was especially contentious. My grandfather did not attend my aunt Micki’s wedding, or my bris, because he would not be in the same room as my effusive and buoyant tata.

Chapter 9-Alone

My mother is quick to say that my grandfather’s approach to parenting, flawed as it was, nonetheless instilled in her a will to persevere. When my mother was a child, she recalls coming home crying one day when she fought with another child. My grandfather told her, “You should never go home crying. Let the other kid go home crying.” That day my saba taught my mother to box. At a time when women were told they would never be good at math, my mother and my aunt were “expected” to do well in math and science. My saba was tough, but, my mother says, he “gave us incredible self-belief. He made us believe in ourselves.”

Today my grandfather lives by himself in Lakewood. He wakes up and runs seven miles. Then he goes to lift weights at the nearby naval base, where before retirement, he designed smart weapons and laser guidance systems. He returns home to eat and read. My mother says his house is in a “disgusting” state.

“He was never able to throw anything out, but we used to do it for him,” she says. “Now he keeps everything.” There are books, papers, and boxes everywhere, and his house is a dilapidated mess. He has no television or computer. He does not buy new clothes, so Micki, Mikey, and my mom buy them for him when they see him. My family has tried and failed to convince him to move closer to them, so that they can take care of him. He lives the life of a recluse, and we seldom see or hear from him.

“We want him to live a decent life without suffering, but all his demons stay with him,” says my mother, “There is not one holiday that I do not cry. That I do not think of him. How he suffers when he does not have to. That he is alone for no reason.”

Chapter 10- Trapped

I never got the chance to talk with my saba. His phone stayed disconnected, and no one can track him down. I took my mother’s advice and did not surprise him with a knock on the door.

I thought I could capture his experiences on paper, and in doing so I would be better able to understand him. Yet for all that I read and worked to reconstruct my grandfather’s story, I came to see that I would never truly comprehend the depth of his experiences. What he had told the rabbi at the hospital was true — “one cannot translate it into words.”

My mother paused to reflect when she told me the story of how my grandfather was forced to roll in mud and feces to keep the Nazis from learning of his attempted escape. “It’s amazing as a ten year old, after all that, he realized he needed to make himself appear dirty,” she said.

I replied, “He knew how to survive.” The war, yes. But not peace, not the life he created afterwards, the life that leaves him alone and isolated.

“He wants us to live like that,” my mother said. “He wants us to be ready for whatever happens, and not to be distracted by living.” My grandmother left him because she was could no longer live this life of fear, distrust, and sadness.

“It was not living,” my tata explains.

My grandfather is obsessed with math because he can control and manipulate numbers. Numbers make sense, and he can predict their actions. People do not move through their lives so predictably. My brilliant physicist grandfather will never be able to wrap his head around this discrepancy. The lack of control is more than he can abide.

The Nazis were unable to take my saba’s life, but his spirit died in the Ukraine 70 years ago.

On Beauty, Grace and a Foot to the Brain: The Rise and Rise and Rise of Anderson Silva

For me, UFC 126 ended as I imagine some drug habits begin.

The final card featured two Brazilian fighters in their thirties. Both had black belts in judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu. Both lined up in the southpaw stance, with their right feet and fists forward. Both had wives and kids. Both loved Jesus.

In the octagon, they moved like yin and yang. The challenger, an olive-skinned former heavyweight with a tree trunk for an abdomen, wore white compression shorts and taped feet. Despite a past checkered by steroid controversy, his explosive attack style still commanded respect in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Opposite him, the tall, bald, tattooless champion wore his trademark bumblebee black and yellow shorts and the shadow of a goatee. As the ref called for the fight to start, the two mixed martial artists shook out their muscles, paced inward and for over a minute just circled the Bud Light logo at the center of the cage.

Only after Belfort tested the water with a low left kick did the champion respond with a more purposeful one of his own, as a mountain man would kick a coyote away from the fire. Anteed up, the champ broke from his southpaw stance to shift his hips from side to side, first like he was dancing, then like he was preparing to jog clockwise around Belfort. He pumped his hands forward like a hip-hop artist. Belfort’s next low kick went unreturned. The champ charged at him but backed off before striking. His handwork got trickier.

All the while, Belfort stayed in his southpaw stance. Only after two minutes did he finally emerge with a right and left hook, glancing off the champion’s cheek. Then they returned to circling each other like lions, until finally the champion broke the stalemate with a high kick. Belfort ducked under it and took him down to the mat. The champ squirmed back to his feet and put a knee into Belfort’s face. Again they were lions. A high kick from Belfort, a low one from the champ. Punches traded, the champ’s entire torso springing back and forth in evasion.

Ten seconds before the fight ended, they were back to circling like lions. But the champion wasn’t dancing anymore. He wasn’t looking at Belfort’s eyes or hands either. He was dropping his chin. His eyes were zeroing in on those taped up feet. He was bringing his own left foot straight up. Belfort’s head was whipping backwards.

A CPR instructor once told me that a person passing out doesn’t keel backward like a board so much as crumple downward. Belfort neither crumpled nor keeled. The swing of his head back to center led the downward trajectory of his body into the mat. He collapsed into a four-point crouch, his body suspended for a nanosecond by the residual firing of synapses in his brain, before flopping onto his back. The champion followed him down, delivering two more blows to Belfort’s head before the ref declared the knock out.

Every sport has moments that can supercharge even the most jaded fan. Years of support for the underperforming teams of our nation’s capital have numbed me to many pro sports. Twice, however, I’ve been sublimated by the feats of athletes for whom I’d never normally care. Walking into my college friend’s dorm in 2004, I caught a scuffle between the Pacers and Pistons escalate into the largest brawl in NBA history. By the time the fans got involved, I was enjoying the hell out of it.

The other time, I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in China. While backpacking over the winter holiday of 2011, I ended up in a hostel whose Canadian manager had downloaded UFC 126 to show on the big screen in their bar. There, I saw Anderson Silva become the first fighter in the world’s premiere fighting organization to drop his opponent with a front kick, a move so simple it could appear on a karate video for kids, yet so devastating as to send a brick of a man like Vitor Belfort spasming to the ground. Ever since, I’ve contributed to conversations on UFC simply and assuredly: “Spider Silva? Dude’s fucking nuts.”

Except that Silva the so-called Arachnid is not noticeably nuts, at least not in the way you would expect of a man who on a moment’s notice could kill you with a limb of his choosing. He may be eccentric, but at 38, Silva shows none of the psychosis I’d expect of a man with such organically derived power. Instead, the pound-for-pound most dangerous man in the world has crafted more identities for himself than a set of Russian dolls. Most notably, there is Silva the ongoing legend of the octagon. That man stormed up the UFC ladder eight years ago and has held the middleweight belt ever since. He has come closer to being Hercules than any other existing member of our species–with Burger King and Nike sponsorships to boot.

But also Silva the entertainer, who idolizes Peter Parker and Michael Jackson. That Silva posed in Rolling Stone wearing the King of Pop’s most iconic outfits and had a yellow Camaro made to look like Bumblebee from Transformers. He shines his pearly whites for the paparazzi and hugs fans. He gives interviews about his Brazilian wax regimen. That Silva has more recently taken to wearing thick, black-framed glasses and cardigan sweaters. Chatting away in high, twangy Brazilian-Portuguese and broken-English, he suggests the off-duty superhero he might be.

Silva the pious family man who threw a black-tie gala for his daughter’s 17th birthday. Most important of all, Silva the workhorse, who can be seen in videos grimacing, sweating, suffering as he spars in boxing pads and Brazilian jiu jitsu robes. His fights brought him fame, but a life of tortuous training got him those fights in the first place.

Still, Anderson Silva looms largest in the octagon. His naturally wiry frame hasn’t stopped him from beating any of the world-class fighters who came for his title. Now 16-0 in the UFC, he has held the belt longer than any other fighter.

The UFC has dropped hints that it will promote a superfight between Silva and either Jon “Bones” Jones or George St. Pierre, respective champions of the weight classes above and below Silva’s, and both legends in their own right. But in July, Silva will first have to defend his title against Chris Weidman, a nose-to-the-grindstone former wrestler from Long Island.

After speaking to Weidman twice (and getting his autograph once), I sincerely want the guy to succeed. When injury frustrated his Olympic dream, he turned to mixed martial arts for the money to move out of his parents’ basement and raise a family in his own home. Neither a shoulder injury last summer nor a first floor destroyed by Hurricane Sandy have gotten between him and his chance to fight Silva this summer.

But having watched Silva v. Belfort almost 50 times now, I’m not sure I want Weidman—or St. Pierre, or Bones Jones–to break the streak. I’m hooked.

Billy Elliot, the fictional son of a coal miner, ditched boxing at an early age to follow his true calling of ballet. Anderson Silva took the opposite course. He wanted to be a dancer before a fighter and a footballer before a dancer. But in a country that knows MMA much more simply as “Vale Tudo”–“Anything Goes”–he ended up a fighter.

The 20th century saw Brazil import and invent a rich array of martial arts. When Muay Thai, taekwondo and karate arrived, they would have found overlap with the homegrown capoeira, a flashy combination of dancing, spinning and striking. But Brazilian jiu jitsu has achieved far more brand recognition, thanks in large part to the entrepreneurial genius of the Gracie family. After watching a judo demonstration in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s, Carlos Gracie mastered the Japanese style and with his brother Helio designed a Brazilian version. By the 1960s, people were practicing Brazilian jiu jitsu in Vale Tudo arenas across the country.

But a young Silva couldn’t afford BJJ. Born April 14, 1975, to a poor Sao Paulo couple, Silva moved to the southern city of Curitiba to grow up with his uncle, a police officer. The uncle couldn’t pay for BJJ classes, so the athletic Silva instead picked it up from neighborhood friends. He did manage to take classes in taekwondo, capoeira and Muay Thai, though, and by 1997 won two welterweight fights at the Brazilian Freestyle Circuit. Later he would earn a spot at Curitiba’s premiere kickboxing academy, Chute Boxe.

Pictures and videos from that time show a lanky man with a low, aggressive capoeira stance. Bouncing around like an orangutan, he would spring up to release a barrage of punches before returning to ground. In 2001, he ended the 18-fight winning streak of Hayato Sakurai, who some considered the best fighter of that time. A year later, Silva began winning fights in Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships. Though the Canadian powerhouse Carlos Newton had come out strong against Silva in Pride 25, repeatedly taking him down to mat, the Brazilian soon ended Newton with a flying knee to his head.

But unlike in the ring, Silva’s standing in Chute Boxe was drifting south. In a biography released last year, Silva confessed to talking with two friends about shooting his trainer after taking a slap in the face during practice. Although his friends talked him down and even now Silva trains with Rafael Cordeiro, two other beefs from that time still linger. Silva’s then-manager, Rudimar Fedrigo, has sued Silva for accusing him of not paying fighters fairly. Just this spring, Silva and Cuban-Brazilian fighter José “Pelé” Landi-Jons scuffled on the streets of Curitiba over the book’s allegation that Landi-Jons once sprayed water over Silva and his daughter while driving past them in the rain. Once Chute Boxe’s top middleweight contender, Landi-Jons has also taken to YouTube to launch a public relations crusade against Silva, claiming he beat Silva twice and challenging the present champion to a rematch.

The personal turmoil didn’t end with Chute. Struggling to feed a wife and kids, Silva also moonlighted behind the counter at McDonalds. Soon, his performance inside the octagon followed suit. Though the Newton fight had pushed Silva’s winning streak to nine, he wouldn’t make it to 10. At Pride 26 in 2003, Daiju Takase, a decided underdog with a 4-7 record, forced Silva to tap out with a triangle choke in the final round. “Anderson, you performed like shit,” one trainer said in Portuguese as they walked backstage.

“I trained a hundred ways how to get out of the triangle, and I didn’t get out of that shit,” Silva yelled, furious. “Shit. Son of a bitch.”

In the fallout of the Takase loss, Silva left Chute and considered quitting fighting entirely. The way the media describes what happened next, Silva was making plans to teach MMA in the U.S. when Brazilian heavyweight “Minotauro” Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira invited him to improve his BJJ at Brazilian Top Team in Rio de Janeiro. Something clicked, but not before his disastrous last shot in Pride.

On New Years Eve of 2004, Silva met Ryo “The Piranha” Chonan, a short man with lazy eyes and a bleached blond buzz cut. By the final round, Chonan had run up the score; Silva was shuffling backward, in need of a hail mary. But Chonan wouldn’t have it. Out of nowhere, he executed what would pass for break dancing on the street. He rotated his body 45 degrees before falling on his back, supporting himself on one arm as he scissored his legs around Silva’s waist and wrenched him to the ground. With Silva on his back, Chonan yanked his ankle outward. With that, the Brazilian tapped out. The gravity-defying sequence took less than a second.

Back in the locker room, the Japanese man iced a face that would soon balloon. “That was amazing!” he said. “That’s the first time I ever fought a guy like that. His right hook is amazing. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. When he starts his punch, because of his long reach I couldn’t see it and then his punch would suddenly appear and bang!”

Meanwhile, his opponent was crying–not bawling, but occasional high-pitch sobs. As the camera followed him out of the arena, he complained about his leg. His trainers were convincing him everything would be okay, and they were right. Silva would rise from the scorched earth of those two Pride defeats. He has lost only one fight since that New Years Eve, when the ref disqualified his 2006 knockout of Yushin Okami. If anything, that loss deserves a place in the Silva pantheon of perfect knockouts for the simple fact that he pulled it off from the flat of his back. Later that year, he’d sign his first contract with the UFC.

After speculation that Pride Fighting Championship’s parent company was serving as a Yakuza front, the organization would lose its television contract and in 2007 sell out to the owners of UFC. Fighting for the new American owners, Ryo Chonan would go only 1-3 before returning to Japan. A reporter recently asked him who could beat Anderson Silva.

“Well, I beat him,” Chonan replied. “Other than that, maybe Jesus.”

From its inception, the UFC has struggled to overcome an ethos of brutality. In the late 1990s, John McCain labeled the UFC “human cockfighting” in his campaign for its ban. To woo back the 36 states that enacted laws against no-holds-barred fighting, the company began rebranding itself as something like a legitimate league. It worked with state athletic commissions, required gloves and banned techniques like fish-hooking (reaching into a person’s mouth) and headbutting.

In 2001, the Fertitta brothers of Las Vegas bought the UFC for $2 million and with showman partner Dana White continued the rebranding, striking gold in 2005 when the reality television show The Ultimate Fighter first aired on Spike. Once relegated to the Pay-Per-View ghetto, the UFC brand now streamed into homes for consumption by the jackpot 18-35 year-old male audience. Since then, it has subsumed the MMA market. Following the Fertittas’ 2007 buyout of Pride Fighting Championship, World Extreme Cagefighting merged with UFC in 2010. A year later the Fertittas bought out their largest competitor, Strikeforce.

Along the way, they’ve done wonderful work of scrubbing the sport of its violent image. Now fighters are tested for performance enhancing drugs and–since blood always ends up in the cage–STDs. MMA remains banned in only two states, though not for lack of effort by the UFC, which has spent $1.5 million lobbying New York state lawmakers to lift the ban since 2007. While it’s questionable that any fighter in the UFC can yet be considered a true household name, few have mirrored the organization’s rise like Anderson Silva, who left Pride before the buyout and burst into UFC with a 49-second knockout of Chris Leben, a fighter who had himself worked his way up the organization’s fledgling reality show.

MMA, the sport on which the UFC brand rests, breaks down into two categories: standing and ground. Silva has always excelled at the standing game–all the striking that derives from Muay Thai, karate and other kick-punch-knee-elbow schemes of fighting. The easy explanation for his success in the UFC is that he finally buckled down and improved his ground game too, training with the Nogueiras to get the black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu that eluded him as a kid. The answer checks out, too. He has tapped out three opponents and never repeated the fatal mistakes he made against Takase and Chonan.

But it’s in the hyper-violent side of the sport where Silva excels. By twisting someone’s arm and getting them to tap out, the damage often ends then and there. But Silva is a clean, wiz-bang-pow striker. Whenever possible, he clocks out the toughest men on earth. Wearing fingerless, inch-thick gloves, he punches, kicks, knees or elbows their heads hard and often enough as to momentarily purée the contents. The Belfort fight was just Exhibit A, if a particularly noteworthy one for the unorthodox use of a move he claims to have learned from Steven Seagal.

If limbs are Silva’s hard power, then after the Belfort fight we also saw Silva the soft power diplomat. As trainers and doctors swarmed over a Belfort who had just taken Silva’s foot in his jaw, Silva hopped onto the cage, straddled it like a bull and pumped his fist into the air. The celebration over, he hugged Belfort, helped him to his feet and finally bowed to the man whose brain he had just scrambled. It was a class act of the strangest order.

For Silva, the picture-perfect Belfort finish could not have come at a better time. He had nearly lost his last fight to Chael Sonnen, a trash-slinging former wrestler who kept Silva pinned underneath him long enough to land 289 strikes, surpassing in one fight the 208 Silva had already received in his UFC career. It almost didn’t matter that Silva later revealed he entered the fight with broken ribs, or that Sonnen later tested positive for steroids, or that Silva squeaked out the win by throwing a last ditch triangle arm bar to force Sonnen into submission.

The Silva cynics have latched onto the Sonnen fight whenever they suggest that Silva can’t keep up the streak, that he’s a dancer afraid to go to ground. The point is salient–since Chris Weidman comes from the same NCAA wrestling pedigree as Sonnen and will be looking for an arm bar or choke to once and for all end the Spider’s tyranny.

By front kicking Belfort, Silva was telling the UFC that he was still their man, that he could still unleash the fury they had spent two decades camouflaging as healthy, sportsmanlike competition. By then going over and kowtowing to Belfort, Silva immediately pulled the blinds back down on that truth. For as long as the UFC has Anderson Silva, it needs not escape its original sin. For as long as the UFC has Anderson Silva, pacifists like me will always realize a deep, dark appetite for violence. 

The Paradox of the Proof

On August 31, 2012, Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki posted four papers on the Internet.

The titles were inscrutable. The volume was daunting: 512 pages in total. The claim was audacious: he said he had proved the ABC Conjecture, a famed, beguilingly simple number theory problem that had stumped mathematicians for decades.

Then Mochizuki walked away. He did not send his work to the Annals of Mathematics. Nor did he leave a message on any of the online forums frequented by mathematicians around the world. He just posted the papers, and waited.

Two days later, Jordan Ellenberg, a math professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, received an email alert from Google Scholar, a service which scans the Internet looking for articles on topics he has specified. On September 2, Google Scholar sent him Mochizuki’s papers: You might be interested in this.

“I was like, ‘Yes, Google, I am kind of interested in that!’” Ellenberg recalls. “I posted it on Facebook and on my blog, saying, ‘By the way, it seems like Mochizuki solved the ABC Conjecture.’”

The Internet exploded. Within days, even the mainstream media had picked up on the story. “World’s Most Complex Mathematical Theory Cracked,” announced the Telegraph. “Possible Breakthrough in ABC Conjecture,” reported the New York Times, more demurely.

On MathOverflow, an online math forum, mathematicians around the world began to debate and discuss Mochizuki’s claim. The question which quickly bubbled to the top of the forum, encouraged by the community’s “upvotes,” was simple: “Can someone briefly explain the philosophy behind his work and comment on why it might be expected to shed light on questions like the ABC conjecture?” asked Andy Putman, assistant professor at Rice University. Or, in plainer words: I don’t get it. Does anyone?

The problem, as many mathematicians were discovering when they flocked to Mochizuki’s website, was that the proof was impossible to read. The first paper, entitled “Inter-universal Teichmuller Theory I: Construction of Hodge Theaters,” starts out by stating that the goal is “to establish an arithmetic version of Teichmuller theory for number fields equipped with an elliptic curve…by applying the theory of semi-graphs of anabelioids, Frobenioids, the etale theta function, and log-shells.”

This is not just gibberish to the average layman. It was gibberish to the math community as well.

“Looking at it, you feel a bit like you might be reading a paper from the future, or from outer space,” wrote Ellenberg on his blog.

“It’s very, very weird,” says Columbia University professor Johan de Jong, who works in a related field of mathematics.

Mochizuki had created so many new mathematical tools and brought together so many disparate strands of mathematics that his paper was populated with vocabulary that nobody could understand. It was totally novel, and totally mystifying.

As Tufts professor Moon Duchin put it: “He’s really created his own world.”

It was going to take a while before anyone would be able to understand Mochizuki’s work, let alone judge whether or not his proof was right. In the ensuing months, the papers weighed like a rock in the math community. A handful of people approached it and began examining it. Others tried, then gave up. Some ignored it entirely, preferring to observe from a distance. As for the man himself, the man who had claimed to solve one of mathematics’ biggest problems, there was not a sound.

For centuries, mathematicians have strived towards a single goal: to understand how the universe works, and describe it. To this objective, math itself is only a tool — it is the language that mathematicians have invented to help them describe the known and query the unknown.

This history of mathematical inquiry is marked by milestones that come in the form of theorems and conjectures. Simply put, a theorem is an observation known to be true. The Pythagorean theorem, for example, makes the observation that for all right-angled triangles, the relationship between the lengths of the three sides, a, b and c is expressed in the equation a2+ b2= c2. Conjectures are predecessors to a theorem — they are proposals for theorems, observations that mathematicians believe to be true, but are yet to be confirmed. When a conjecture is proved, it becomes a theorem and when that happens, mathematicians rejoice, and add the new theorem to their tally of the understood universe.

“The point is not to prove the theorem,” explains Ellenberg. “The point is to understand how the universe works and what the hell is going on.”

Ellenberg is doing the dishes while talking to me over the phone, and I can hear the sound of a small infant somewhere in the background. Ellenberg is passionate about explaining mathematics to the world. He writes a math column for Slate magazine and is working on a book called How Not To Be Wrong, which is supposed to help laypeople apply math to their lives.

The sounds of the dishes pause as Ellenberg explains what motivates him and his fellow mathematicians. I imagine him gesturing in the air with soapy hands: “There’s a feeling that there’s a vast dark area of ignorance, but all of us are pushing together, taking steps together to pick at the boundaries.”

The ABC Conjecture probes deep into the darkness, reaching at the foundations of math itself. First proposed by mathematicians David Masser and Joseph Oesterle in the 1980s, it makes an observation about a fundamental relationship between addition and multiplication. Yet despite its deep implications, the ABC Conjecture is famous because, on the surface, it seems rather simple.

It starts with an easy equation: a + b = c.

The variables a, b, and c, which give the conjecture its name, have some restrictions. They need to be whole numbers, and a and b cannot share any common factors, that is, they cannot be divisible by the same prime number. So, for example, if a was 64, which equals 26, then b could not be any number that is a multiple of two. In this case, b could be 81, which is 34. Now a and b do not share any factors, and we get the equation 64 + 81 = 145.

It isn’t hard to come up with combinations of a and b that satisfy the conditions. You could come up with huge numbers, such as 3,072 + 390,625 = 393,697 (3,072 = 210 x 3 and 390,625 = 58, no overlapping factors there), or very small numbers, such as 3 + 125 = 128 (125 = 5 x 5 x5).

What the ABC conjecture then says is that the properties of a and b affect the properties of c. To understand the observation, it first helps to rewrite these equations a + b = c into versions made up of the prime factors:

Our first equation, 64 + 81 = 145, is equivalent to 26+ 34= 5 x 29.

Our second example, 3,072 + 390,625 = 393,697 is equivalent to  210 x 3 + 58 = 393,697 (which happens to be prime!)

Our last example, 3 + 125 = 128, is equivalent to 3 + 53= 27

The first two equations are not like the third, because in the first two equations, you have lots of prime factors on the left hand side of the equation, and very few on the right hand side. The third example is the opposite — there are more primes on the right hand side (seven) of the equation than on the left (only four). As it turns out, in all the possible combinations of a, b, and c, situation three is pretty rare. The ABC Conjecture essentially says that when there are lots of prime factors on the left hand of the equation then, usually, there will be not very many on the right side of the equation.

Of course, “lots of,” “not very many,” and “usually” are very vague words, and in a formal version of the ABC Conjecture, all these terms are spelled out in more precise math-speak. But even in this watered-down version, one can begin to appreciate the conjecture’s implications. The equation is based on addition, but the conjecture’s observation is more about multiplication.

“It really is about something very, very basic, about a tight constraint that relates multiplicative and additive properties of numbers,” says Minhyong Kim, professor at Oxford University. “If there’s something new to discover about that, you might expect it to be very influential.”

This is not intuitive. While mathematicians came up with addition and multiplication in the first place, based on their current knowledge of mathematics, there is no reason for them to presume that the additive properties of numbers would somehow influence or affect their multiplicative properties.

“There’s very little evidence for it,” says Peter Sarnak, professor at Princeton University, who is a self-described skeptic of the ABC conjecture. “I’ll only believe it when it’s proved.”

But if it were true? Mathematicians say that it would reveal a deep relationship between addition and multiplication that they never knew of before.

Even Sarnak, the skeptic, acknowledges this.

“If it’s true, then it will be the most powerful thing we have,” he says.

It would be so powerful, in fact, that it would automatically unlock many legendary math puzzles. One of these would be Fermat’s last theorem, an infamous math problem that was proposed in 1637, and solved only recently by Andrew Wiles in 1993. Wiles’ proof earned him more than 100,000 Deutsche marks in prize money (equivalent to about $50,000 in 1997), a reward that was offered almost a century before, in 1908. Wiles did not solve Fermat’s Last Theorem via the ABC conjecture — he took a different route — but if the ABC conjecture were to be true, then the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem would be an easy consequence.

Because of its simplicity, the ABC Conjecture is well-known by all mathematicians. CUNY professor Lucien Szpiro says that “every professional has tried at least one night” to theorize about a proof. Yet few people have seriously attempted to crack it. Szpiro, whose eponymous conjecture is a precursor of the ABC Conjecture, presented a proof in 2007, but it was soon found to be problematic. Since then, nobody has dared to touch it, not until Mochizuki.

When Mochizuki posted his papers, the math community had much reason to be enthusiastic. They were excited not just because someone had claimed to prove an important conjecture, but because of who that someone was.

Mochizuki was known to be brilliant. Born in Tokyo, he moved to New York with his parents, Kiichi and Anne Mochizuki, when he was 5 years old. He left home for high school, attending Philips Exeter Academy, a selective prep school in New Hampshire. There, he whipped through his academics with lightning speed, graduating after two years, at age 16, with advanced placements in mathematics, physics, American and European history, and Latin.

Then Mochizuki enrolled at Princeton University where, again, he finished ahead of his peers, earning his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in three years and moving quickly onto his Ph.D, which he received at age 23. After lecturing at Harvard University for two years, he returned to Japan, joining the Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences at Kyoto University. In 2002, he became a full professor at the unusually young age of 33. His early papers were widely acknowledged to be very good work.

Academic prowess is not the only characteristic that set Mochizuki apart from his peers. His friend, Oxford professor Minhyong Kim, says that Mochizuki’s most outstanding characteristic is his intense focus on work.

“Even among many mathematicians I’ve known, he seems to have an extremely high tolerance for just sitting and doing mathematics for long, long hours,” says Kim.

Mochizuki and Kim met in the early 1990s, when Mochizuki was still an undergraduate student at Princeton. Kim, on exchange from Yale University, recalls Mochizuki making his way through the works of French mathematician Alexander Grothedieck, whose books on algebraic and arithmetic geometry are a must-read for any mathematician in the field.

“Most of us gradually come to understand [Grothendieck’s works] over many years, after dipping into it here and there,” said Kim. “It adds up to thousands and thousands of pages.”

But not Mochizuki.

“Mochizuki…just read them from beginning to end sitting at his desk,” recalls Kim. “He started this process when he was still an undergraduate, and within a few years, he was just completely done.”

A few years after returning to Japan, Mochizuki turned his focus to the ABC Conjecture. Over the years, word got around that he believed to have cracked the puzzle, and Mochizuki himself said that he expected results by 2012. So when the papers appeared, the math community was waiting, and eager. But then the enthusiasm stalled.

“His other papers – they’re readable, I can understand them and they’re fantastic,” says de Jong, who works in a similar field. Pacing in his office at Columbia University, de Jong shook his head as he recalled his first impression of the new papers. They were different. They were unreadable. After working in isolation for more than a decade, Mochizuki had built up a structure of mathematical language that only he could understand. To even begin to parse the four papers posted in August 2012, one would have to read through hundreds, maybe even thousands, of pages of previous work, none which had been vetted or peer-reviewed. It would take at least a year to read and understand everything. De Jong, who was about to go on sabbatical, briefly considered spending his year on Mochizuki’s papers, but when he saw height of the mountain, he quailed.

“I decided, I can’t possibly work on this. It would drive me nuts,” he said.

Soon, frustration turned into anger. Few professors were willing to directly critique a fellow mathematician, but almost every person I interviewed was quick to point out that Mochizuki was not following community standards. Usually, they said, mathematicians discuss their findings with their colleagues. Normally, they publish pre-prints to widely respected online forums. Then they submit their papers to the Annals of Mathematics, where papers are refereed by eminent mathematicians before publication. Mochizuki was bucking the trend. He was, according to his peers, “unorthodox.”

But what roused their ire most was Mochizuki’s refusal to lecture. Usually, after publication, a mathematician lectures on his papers, travelling to various universities to explain his work and answer questions from his colleagues. Mochizuki has turned down multiple invitations.

“A very prominent research university has asked him, ‘Come explain your result,’ and he said, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that in one talk,’” says Cathy O’Neil, de Jong’s wife, a former math professor better known as the blogger “Mathbabe.”

“And so they said, ‘Well then, stay for a week,’ and he’s like, ‘I couldn’t do it in a week.’

“So they said, ‘Stay for a month. Stay as long as you want,’ and he still said no.

“The guy does not want to do it.”

Kim sympathizes with his frustrated colleagues, but suggests a different reason for the rancor. “It really is painful to read other people’s work,” he says. “That’s all it is… All of us are just too lazy to read them.”

Kim is also quick to defend his friend. He says Mochizuki’s reticence is due to being a “slightly shy character” as well as his assiduous work ethic. “He’s a very hard working guy and he just doesn’t want to spend time on airplanes and hotels and so on.”

O’Neil, however, holds Mochizuki accountable, saying that his refusal to cooperate places an unfair burden on his colleagues.

“You don’t get to say you’ve proved something if you haven’t explained it,” she says. “A proof is a social construct. If the community doesn’t understand it, you haven’t done your job.”

Today, the math community faces a conundrum: the proof to a very important conjecture hangs in the air, yet nobody will touch it. For a brief moment in October, heads turned when Yale graduate student Vesselin Dimitrov pointed out a potential contradiction in the proof, but Mochizuki quickly responded, saying he had accounted for the problem. Dimitrov retreated, and the flicker of activity subsided.

As the months pass, the silence has also begun to call into question a basic premise of mathematical academia. Duchin explains the mainstream view this way: “Proofs are right or wrong. The community passes verdict.”

This foundational stone is one that mathematicians are proud of. The community works together; they are not cut-throat or competitive. Colleagues check each other’s work, spending hours upon hours verifying that a peer got it right. This behavior is not just altruistic, but also necessary: unlike in medical science, where you know you’re right if the patient is cured, or in engineering, where the rocket either launches or it doesn’t, theoretical math, better known as “pure” math, has no physical, visible standard. It is entirely based on logic. To know you’re right means you need someone else, preferably many other people, to walk in your footsteps and confirm that every step was made on solid ground. A proof in a vacuum is no proof at all.

Even an incorrect proof is better than no proof, because if the ideas are novel, they may still be useful for other problems, or inspire another mathematician to figure out the right answer. So the most pressing question isn’t whether or not Mochizuki is right — the more important question is, will the math community fulfill their promise, step up to the plate and read the papers?

The prospects seem thin. Szpiro is among the few who have made attempts to understand short segments of the paper. He holds a weekly workshop with his post-doctoral students at CUNY to discuss the paper, but he says they are limited to “local” analysis and do not understand the big picture yet. The only other known candidate is Go Yamashita, a colleague of Mochizuki at Kyoto University. According to Kim, Mochizuki is holding a private seminar with Yamashita, and Kim hopes that Yamashita will then go on to share and explain the work. If Yamashita does not pull through, it is unclear who else might be up to the task.

For now, all the math community can do is wait. While they wait, they tell stories, and recall great moments in math — the year Wiles cracked Fermat’s Last Theorem; how Perelman proved the Poincaré Conjecture. Columbia professor Dorian Goldfeld tells the story of Kurt Heegner, a high school teacher in Berlin, who solved a classic problem proposed by Gauss. “Nobody believed it. All the famous mathematicians pooh-poohed it and said it was wrong.” Heegner’s paper gathered dust for more than a decade until finally, four years after his death, mathematicians realized that Heegner had been right all along. Kim recalls Yoichi Miyaoka’s proposed proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1988, which garnered a lot of media attention before serious flaws were discovered. “He became very embarrassed,” says Kim.

As they tell these stories, Mochizuki and his proofs hang in the air. All these stories are possible outcomes. The only question is – which?

Kim is one of the few people who remains optimistic about the future of this proof. He is planning a conference at Oxford University this November, and hopes to invite Yamashita to come and share what he has learned from Mochizuki. Perhaps more will be made clear, then.

As for Mochizuki, who has refused all media requests, who seems so reluctant to promote even his own work, one has to wonder if he is even aware of the storm he has created.

On his website, one of the only photos of Mochizuki available on the Internet shows a middle-aged man with old-fashioned 90’s style glasses, staring up and out, somewhere over our heads. A self-given title runs over his head. It is not “mathematician” but, rather, “Inter-universal Geometer.”

What does it mean? His website offers no clues. There are his papers, thousands of pages long, reams upon reams of dense mathematics. His resume is spare and formal. He reports his marital status as “Single (never married).” And then there is a page called Thoughts of Shinichi Mochizuki, which has only 17 entries. “I would like to report on my recent progress,” he writes, February 2009. “Let me report on my progress,” October 2009. “Let me report on my progress,” April 2010, June 2011, January 2012. Then follows math-speak. It is hard to tell if he is excited, daunted, frustrated, or enthralled.

Mochizuki has reported all this progress for years, but where is he going? This “inter-universal geometer,” this possible genius, may have found the key that would redefine number theory as we know it. He has, perhaps, charted a new path into the dark unknown of mathematics. But for now, his footsteps are untraceable. Wherever he is going, he seems to be travelling alone.


Contact the Author: | Twitter @CarolineYLChen

Demolished But Not Forgotten


Birds sing in the broad sycamore that stretches over a forgotten block on Manhattan’s East 19th Street. Not far away, at the end of the block, the impenetrable brick wall of Stuyvesant Town’s towers rises up where once the street continued on to the East River. On both sides of the street several bleak brick buildings, bearing no ornamentation but rusty fire escapes, stand amidst the row of corniced town-homes that have inhabited the block for the better part of a century. And on the north side, wedged between the tidy shutters of a brownstone and a sleepy terra-cotta colored tenement, is an empty, debris-strewn lot where not so long ago the Christ Lutheran Church once stood.

In New York City, and particularly on Manhattan’s East side, which is renowned for its impetuous race to constantly reinvent itself, the church’s congregation had long since learned that almost nothing in Manhattan lasts forever. For nearly six years the crumbling stone arch of the church’s front facade stood amidst the mostly demolished building—a tombstone for the congregation that once called it home. But earlier this year, in the solemn dead of winter, the sounds of hammers and chisels pounded away at its stones, and the arch faded into the shadows of the neighborhood that once raised it.

Rev. Brooke Swertfager led the Christ Lutheran Church congregation for the last 10 years before it closed its doors forever. Now in her 50s, the witty, auburn-haired Swertfager carries herself with grace, but as she speaks she seems haunted by the loss of her congregation’s home. In her office in the Lutheran Seafarer & International House by Union Square, Swertfager leaned back in her chair and rested her chin on her fingertips as she looked back on her life at the small church on 19th Street.

Due to financial troubles and declining attendance, Swertfager’s last few years at Christ Lutheran Church had been a gradual but difficult realization that the once great congregation’s time was coming to an end. For Swertfager, saying goodbye was a bittersweet moment.

“Frankly, I’m so glad that they did it,” said Swertfager, her malachite-colored eyes moist despite her stolid voice. “It was kind of like a scab on a wound.”

For 125 years the Lutheran congregation had called East 19th Street home—although, even during those years, it wasn’t the first time they’d had to watch one of their houses of worship demolished before their eyes.

In 1868 a group of German and English immigrants—led by German-American George Unangst Wenner—founded the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Christ above a blacksmith shop near the corner of 5th Avenue and East 14th Street. In those early days, Wenner used an anvil for his pulpit and the congregation numbered less than a dozen. But as waves of immigrants continued to pour into the area, the congregation steadily grew.

For over a decade the congregation migrated from one place to another as it matured, finally finding a more permanent home in what was then New York’s “Little Germany”—a vibrant neighborhood that stretched along the East Side of Manhattan.

“At the beginning of the ‘70s, after a decade of continuously rising immigration, Kleindeutschland was in its fullest bloom,” wrote historian Stanley Nadel. “Kleindeutschland, called Dutchtown by the Irish, consisted of 400 blocks formed by some six avenues and nearly 40 streets,” and was lined with covered-markets, beer halls, and oyster saloons. The neighborhood also had its own amusement district that featured puppet shows and classical drama performances.

Here the congregation found a home at 406 E. 19th St., the Chapel of Free Grace. The impressive gothic revival church, with its gabled tower, elegant chapter house, and stained-glass rose window, was a symbol of its quickly growing social and cultural significance in the community. But despite the Lutheran immigrants’ relief at settling down, after years of transience, their troubles were far from over.

“The extraordinary conditions of a rapidly expanding metropolis, with its nomadic population, together with our special drawback of congregations divided among various races and languages as well as conflicting schools of theological definition, make our tasks heavy and confront us with problems of grave difficulty,” wrote Rev. Wenner, in his 1918 book, “The Lutherans of New York: Their Story and Their Problems.”

His congregation had finally found a home on the East Side, but New York City’s race to modernize as it approached the turn of the 20th century was creating a kind of urban diaspora that was slowly tearing his congregation apart and redefining the neighborhood around it.

“The completion of the Elevated Lines in 1879 and the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 changed the course of history for our Lutheran congregations,” wrote Wenner. “It was hard for those of us who still held the fort on Manhattan Island to see the congregations we had gathered with painstaking effort scattering in every direction, especially to lose the children and grandchildren of our faithful families.”

But the problem was one that had only just begun when Wenner wrote these words. The neighborhood around the Lutheran church was to become an increasingly transient place in the decades to come, and by the time Rev. Swertfager arrived nearly a hundred years later, there was already little left to salvage.

While walking his dog below the leafy sycamore on 19th Street, John Donnelly glanced back at the blue scaffolding around the empty lot where the Christ Lutheran Church once stood.

“I guess the church didn’t have a congregation anymore, so they sold,” said Donnelly, who has lived in one of the apartment buildings across the street from the church for the past 15 years. He said that, although the neighborhood traditionally has a high turnover rate, its deep-rooted community has dissolved even more so in recent years.

“Most of these buildings are rentals,” said Donnelly. “Over the years it’s become a lot more transient because you have a lot more college kids moving in.” He said that many of these rentals have replaced homes in the area and that the new, younger tenants are probably less invested in neighborhood dynamics.

The changing demographic was also one of the reasons that Swertfager said contributed to the decline of her congregation during the years that she served as pastor at Christ Lutheran Church.

“When I came there in 1991 several couples retired and moved away,” Swertfager said, “and I was left with primarily single, elderly women.” It was a sobering realization for Swertfager, but by the time she arrived, the Evangelical Lutheran community which had grown in vast waves during the late 19th and early 20th century, had almost completely vanished from the East Side of Manhattan.

One of the major blows to the neighborhood’s sense of community came in the early 1940s. As World War II came to a close and soldiers began returning from overseas, city planners searched for solutions to New York City’s housing crisis. At the time, one of the most prevalent strategies, which was championed by city planner Robert Moses, was known as “slum clearance”—a program in which entire neighborhoods were demolished and replaced with towering apartment complexes.

“You can draw any kind of picture you want on a clean slate,” Moses said, referring to his methods, “but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat axe.”

Although the neighborhood around the Lutheran’s Chapel of Free Grace was home to some 3,100 families in the early ‘40s, this was one of the neighborhoods chosen for “slum clearance.” Throughout the early part of the decade almost all of those families were evicted to make way for a new housing project known as Stuyvesant Town.

The New York Times wrote that the large-scale eviction of the tenants living in the Stuyvesant Town area was, “the greatest and most significant mass movement of families in New York City’s history.” It was the beginning of the end for a once unified community that had long called the neighborhood home. It was also the beginning of the end for the Lutheran congregation that had made its home there 66 years ago.

“In Stuyvesant Town, because of design, they became semi-autonomous and turned away from the rest of the neighborhood,” said David Smiley, a professor of architecture and urban studies at Columbia University. In what had once been a tightly-knit neighborhood of New York that blended seamlessly with the city around it, was now a looming brick colossus of 56 towers fenced in a 16-block area, and separated from the world around it.

Not only did the construction of Stuyvesant Town, and its twin development of Peter Cooper Village, isolate its residents within, it also fragmented the neighborhoods around its borders. After the Chapel of Free Grace was demolished to make way for the huge developments, the congregation constructed the Christ Lutheran Church at 355 E. 19th St.—a block away—but only to discover that most of its congregation had disappeared, scattered throughout the city and across the nation.

Over the following years the church fell farther and farther into disrepair, slowly running out of funds as its community dwindled away.

“It was an albatross—we couldn’t maintain the building and there was constant damage,” Swertfager said, adding that she spent most of her time keeping up with repairs herself in the moldering building because of the church’s financial troubles.

“We saw ourselves running out of reserves,” said Swertfager. “We sold while we could still get good money for it and before it crumbled into oblivion.”

In 2006, after two years of research and consultation with a real estate lawyer who had recently negotiated the sale of another church by Washington Square Park, Swertfager found a buyer she trusted—a couple with plans for altering the property, but who shared her vision of preserving the legacy of the church.

“We left it with the Goulds,” Swertfager said, “and they had architects coming and going and we had a very special relationship.” But over the course of the next few years, Swertfager noticed that although portions of the church had begun to disappear, little progress had been made.

Jonathan Gould, the developer who had purchased the property, hired architect Garth Hayden to design a low-rise luxury condo tower that would adaptively fit on top of the church while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the church’s facade. Hayden spent the next two years personally surveying and measuring every beam and wall of the church, and designing architectural models of the planned renovation. But things didn’t turn out the way that Swertfager and he had expected.

“We proposed alterations to the church and it was approved and ready to go,” Hayden said, describing the tedious process for obtaining construction permits from the Department of Buildings. However, after working on the project for over a year, he said that for undisclosed reasons construction was halted. Then, after several more months, structurally weakened and exposed to the elements, the arch of the Christ Lutheran Church that had stood at 355 E. 19th St. since 1948 collapsed.

“It was really unfortunate,” said Hayden, who had been very enthusiastic about the project, “because of the historical importance.”

Although Gould was unavailable to speak to current plans for the church, Stanley Vickers, who owns the property next door and sold air rights—the rights to build additional stories on the lot—to Gould, said that the deal was terminated because of financial difficulties.  In 2012 the lot was then sold to Yosi Cohen, a developer who recently began construction on a seven-story apartment building that will soon rise above the remaining town homes beside it.

For five years the crumbling stone walls of the lot had sat derelict—a melancholy reminder of the old Little Germany—soon to disappear into the ever more transient neighborhood.  The church had been part of the community for nearly 60 years, and although most residents didn’t know why it had been torn down, the few who had long lived on the street were sad to see it go.

“The community didn’t know,” said Swertfager. “There is no community there, really.” The neighborhood where Rev. Wenner had founded the Evangelical Lutheran Church nearly 150 years ago was gone, and the congregation that he had worked to bring together was nowhere to be found. Little by little, the buildings and the residents that had once inhabited Little Germany had been replaced.

After closing their doors in 2007, Swertfager’s remaining congregation joined the Lutheran Seafarer’s & International House, a guesthouse for travelers and asylum seekers, half a mile from the old church on 19th Street and right beside the transit hub of Union Square.

“We’ve done better since we moved over here because we get people from every borough,” Swertfager said. The very trains and bridges that had torn apart Rev. Wenner’s congregation more than a century ago were now bringing together a splintered community in the neighborhood that it once called home.

While New York City continues its perpetual reinvention all around her, Swertfager continues to lead the remnants of her scattered congregation, only one block from the blacksmith shop where the congregation first came together. And after all of the years of searching for home, for now, the congregation has found one in the Seafarer’s & International House, whose motto is, appropriately, “Because nobody should be isolated or forgotten, whether at sea or ashore.”

Healing Me Harshly

This is a story about ups and downs. Sitting on a plastic bed in the in-patient/out-patient wing of the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins with an IV connected to a catheter that had been implanted in my chest, things were looking up. It was 2008 and I was 28 years old, and due to a recent battery of high-dose chemotherapy that had left me with maybe one white blood cell, which I’d named Melvin, I had to wear one of those surgeon’s masks at all times to keep the world’s germs out of my face. Here I was, if you can imagine, bald and eyebrowless, with a paper mask over my mouth, a tube coming out of my chest, the picture of cancer, and things were looking up. Scans showed that the cancer (along with just about every other cell in my body) was disappearing.

Months earlier, oncologists at the University of Pennsylvania and Memorial Sloan-Kettering had urged me to undergo a bone marrow transplant. This is the standard treatment for someone in the position I was in, they said; this is what people with advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma do when the first line of treatment fails, when the cancer returns after a brief remission. Despite the damage a bone marrow transplant can do to a body, this is the method that has worked for many who came before me. They take stem cells out of your body, put them in a freezer, fill you up with chemotherapy, then put the stem cells back in. What I can tell you about the procedure to access your bone marrow is that someone cranks a thick needle—literally cranks it—into your bone at the back of your hip. The first time they dug into mine for a biopsy, I screamed and cursed for half an hour.

And so my mother Googled. For days on end, she didn’t eat or sleep. She Googled in pursuit of something better, more advanced, more indicative of a civilization that refuses to let sons die. The leaps and bounds in medical research that hit the front pages of newspapers every week seem to elude you when you actually need them. Eventually, my mother found someone at MD Anderson who was conducting a clinical trial and got the doctor on the phone. She told my mother the trial was over, though, and to just go forward with the transplant. My mother pushed until the woman relented and said, almost in a whisper, to look into Johns Hopkins. My mother said she felt like she was doing a drug deal. In fact, she was.

There was more Googling, I believe, my mother becoming an expert in my condition, reading scientific research papers, reading everything coming out of Johns Hopkins oncology. At the bottom of one paper, she found a name and an email address. A week later, we were in Baltimore, and a doctor was drawing a diagram of a B-cell on a piece of notebook paper. He had just finished recruiting for a clinical trial that involved high doses of chemotherapy, a sort of cancer vaccine, and something called monoclonal antibodies–a form of immunotherapy. He was willing to take me into the clinical trial even though they had finished recruiting.

He said: Half the time, bone marrow transplants don’t work.

He said: If the first transplant fails, you have to get bone marrow from a donor and try again.

He said: If the second transplant fails, treatment options become very limited.

If I did the trial and it didn’t work, I’d be back to where I started, with a 50 percent chance of living and two potential transplants ahead. If I opted to go directly to the transplant and it didn’t work, I’d have less than a 50 percent chance of surviving and only one treatment option remaining. The doctor pointed at the cancerous B-cell he’d drawn and explained how monoclonal antibodies would attack it. B-cells are a type of white blood cell that happen to become malignant in my type of lymphoma. The antibodies would find and latch onto the proteins that cover B-cells; the presence of the monoclonals would signal other cells in my immune system to attack. This approach would be combined with a chemo carpet bomb. The idea was to find every microscopic bit of cancer in me and kill, kill, kill.

The choice was clear.

Now, as I sat on a plastic bed at Johns Hopkins, a liquid monoclonal antibody army hovered beside me in a plastic bag. A line led from the bag to my chest and into an artery, allowing the army to enter. It was an army that was built over a century of research, of breakthrough insights and false steps, of ups and downs. It started in Berlin in 1890 when a physiologist named Emil Behring injected a mouse with the blood of a guinea pig.

Behring was doing this work in search of a way to fight infections, not cancer. The guinea pig he’d taken the blood from had just recovered from diphtheria, an infectious disease caused by bacteria. He infected the mouse with diphtheria, then gave it the guinea pig’s blood, and the mouse was cured. In fact, the mouse was now immune to the disease.

In 1975, two immunologists at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, developed the first method to produce monoclonal antibodies. You inject a mouse with an antigen, something its immune system will interpret as a danger. The immune system produces an antibody. You isolate the antibody. You fuse it with constantly replicating cells. You inject it into humans.

In the 1980s, monoclonal antibodies were going to be the “magic bullet” that could cure cancer. In trials on mice, it killed cancer time and time again. But the treatment failed in clinical trials, and people got even sicker. It was because the antibodies themselves were of mice—the human immune system saw them as enemies and reacted badly. Most scientists abandoned monoclonal research. All but a few. It wasn’t until 1988 that progress was made: a biochemist named Greg Winter at the Medical Research Council developed methods to humanize monoclonal antibodies, making them more compatible with human biology. This led to the invention of rituximab–the monoclonal antibody that would be used in my clinical trial. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997.

This cycle of hype and abandonment isn’t uncommon in experimental cancer treatments. Someone cures cancer in mice, enthusiasm builds, but then the treatment fails in human trials. Everyone cuts their losses and moves on to something else. A decade before the ebb and flow of monoclonal antibodies, another immunotherapy drug called interferon went through its own cycle. This was a drug that was made from proteins released by white blood cells. There was big hype around it all through the seventies—interferon was that decade’s magic bullet. It, too, shrank tumors in mice. And it, too, produced poor results human trials.

So when a doctor named James Allison began pursuing immunotherapy research in the late ’70s and early ’80s, people reportedly told him to stop. After interferon, interest in the idea that the immune system alone could be used to attack cancer cells was in decline; Allison had entered this field of research in its period of abandonment. I called him recently to ask why this pattern continues to emerge, why the ups and downs are so stark and so frequent.

“That’s the nature of science,” he said. “It’s not a linear progression; it’s like a tree, and most limbs snap off.”

Allison’s focus was on T-cells, which are another type of white blood cell. But unlike B-cells, T-cells don’t become malignant. Instead, they simply fail to recognize that cancer is present around them, and largely go about their business as if their host were not dying. Allison’s aim was to manipulate the T-cells—to get them to recognize cancer as a threat and start attacking. In the mid 1990s, Allison’s lab at the University of Texas discovered antibodies that could manipulate the T-cells and prompt them to act. They began testing it on mice, and the treatment was shrinking tumors left and right. In 2004, two drug companies agreed to fund a clinical trial.

The patients treated with the T-cell approach were evaluated after 12 weeks. For the most part, their tumors had only gotten bigger.

The first phase of my clinical trial at Johns Hopkins was ICE chemotherapy. ICE is a combination of three chemo drugs: ifosfamide, carboplatin, etoposide. The first time I walked into the chemo lounge at the hospital, the head nurse, Jane, told me to go ahead and pick a recliner or day bed. The recliners were scattered around the large room; the day beds were by the windows. I was used to the cancer center at the University of Pennsylvania, where I had been treated a year earlier before going into my brief remission. At Penn, I got a private room for my chemo treatments. Now, as Jane asked me to pick a place to get my poison, I looked around the open room and froze. I just froze.

“I hate it here,” I said.

“Well, you can leave,” Jane replied. “You can get treated wherever you want.”

And I loved her instantly. The world needs to know about nurses who deal in chemotherapy. The depth of their compassion extends beyond understanding; they know the sick better than they know themselves. They know the patients who come in on sympathy overload, or the ones who feign a positive attitude, or the ones who have made peace with their fate. They know the powerlessness of the man who walks into their cathedral and says that he hates it.

I chose a day bed.

For nine weeks I came to this place, once every three weeks for three days at a time. They’d insert the IV needle into my hand or my arm, and I’d sit back and take it in. Compared with what would come, ICE was pretty tolerable. It came with a bit of queasiness, and a bit of what we call “chemo brain,” where books and television become too difficult to process.

After the nine weeks of ICE, I went into another remission, but my treatment wasn’t finished. Now it was time to kill, kill, kill. I was soon given my first dose of rituximab. I felt nothing as a result. It might as well have been aspirin. But then there was the cytoxan—the most potent and toxic chemotherapy drug I’d ever take on. Cytoxan is a fucking chemical weapon. They pumped it into me for 12 hours a day, five days straight. When I try to access the memory of that week, all I see is grey. My mother tells me I slept most of the time and refused food. When I had to eat, I cringed with every bite.

Let me tell you about how mustard gas became the cancer treatment we call chemotherapy. In 1943, President Roosevelt had ordered mass production of chemical weapons after being led to believe that the Axis was doing the same. The idea was to assure mutual destruction in the event that it was used, of course. And so when a U.S. merchant ship was attacked and destroyed in the Adriatic Sea near Bari, Italy, it happened to be carrying 100 tons of mustard gas. It spilled into the harbor and into the town.

Just about everyone on the ship died in the attack, including everyone who knew what the ship’s cargo was. A chemical warfare expert named Stewart Alexander was sent to investigate what happened in Bari, and quickly figured out it was mustard gas. He did autopsies of hundreds of victims, noticed that their white blood cells were all but gone, wondered if nitrogen mustard could have the same effect on cancer cells, and you can guess at the rest.

A year prior to all of this, two Yale pharmacologists who were working in secrecy for the War Department treated lymphoma-riddled mice with Mustargen, and also found that it targeted rapidly-dividing cells. This, combined with Alexander’s findings, led to the use of nitrogen mustard to treat cancer. Mustargen itself was still part of the standard treatment of Hodgkin’s just a few years before I was diagnosed.

Cytoxan is a nitrogen mustard alkylating agent.

It was a few weeks after the cytoxan that I sat on the bed at the in-patient/out-patient wing of the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins with an IV connected to a catheter that had been implanted in my chest, and things were looking up. Much of me was gone, including my hair and my immune system, but things were looking up because I saw those who’d gone through the bone marrow transplant I’d avoided. Their bodies had been ravaged in ways that mine had not. Among the ones who’d received the last line of treatment — the donor transplant — some contracted graft-versus-host disease. It’s a wretched condition in which the immune system sees the rest of the body’s cells as foreign and begins to attack. The body destroys itself from within.

Things were looking up for me because, over the past century, researchers had risked their careers to find new ways to treat cancer. A drug that began as mustard gas may have been the reason I lived, sure, but a drug that began as mouse blood gave me an extra option. And neither would exist if scientists hadn’t pursued wild ideas, and I’d be sitting in a hospital with less than a 50 percent chance of living and only one possible treatment remaining.

Several months after Dr. James Allison’s T-cell trial had failed, something happened. The tumors within the patients treated in the trial stopped growing and, in some cases, began to shrink. Allison’s antibody, the one that manipulates the T-cells into action, was approved to treat melanoma by the FDA in 2011. Nature published a positive review of the drug that year, and Dr. Jerome Groopman wrote about Allison’s success in an article for The New Yorker in 2012. Allison had brought the immune system approach out of its period of abandonment and into resurgence.

“When you evaluate things, you’ve got to be careful to understand their mechanism,” he said when we spoke. “So if you’re evaluating a drug that’s supposed to directly kill tumor cells, there can’t be any tumors that get bigger because if they do, that means the drug’s not working.”

That is, in order to test immunotherapy, you have to understand immunotherapy.

“With drugs that target the immune system,” Allison continued, “they don’t do anything with the tumor cells. They’re trying to regulate and keep the immune response from stopping. The bottom line is, that can take some time. If you use the same standards that were used for cytotoxic to evaluate immune therapies, you miss a lot of people that have benefited. So if you don’t pay attention to that, you’ll kill the drug, because the trials weren’t designed with enough insight into the mechanisms. Things can fail for the wrong reasons.”

James Allison is now the chair of the Department of Immunology at MD Anderson.

At the beginning of 2013, four years after going back into remission, I made my annual trip to Johns Hopkins for a checkup. I was there to see if my remission had persisted. I went into phlebotomy to have some blood drawn, and I saw Jane, the nurse who had told me I could leave chemotherapy if I wanted to. We hugged and caught up, and she made fun of me for my behavior when we first met, as she always does. Then I went for a CT scan, then waited in a checkup room to see my doctor. At the four-year mark, having no signs of cancer would be a very good sign. After five years of remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, patients are considered cured.

My doctor – the same one who had drawn me a picture of a B-cell four years earlier – walked in and told me I was all clear. I asked him a question I’d been considering all day. If I had done the ICE and the cytoxan without any rituximab, would we have gotten the same results?

“You know, we just don’t know,” he said. He also told me that the clinical trial was successful, which I took to mean that the majority of participants have remained in remission. In the very specific case of treating patients like me – who have relapsed with advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma – doctors are still learning about the effects of rituximab. However, the drug has become a standard treatment in early stage non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

I told my doctor that I was writing this story, and he told me about a drug called thalidomide. In the 1950s, it was used as anti-nausea medication for pregnant women. It was withdrawn from the market in 1962, after it was discovered that it caused birth defects. Later, in 1964, a biologist named Jacob Sheskin was treating a patient who was critically ill with leprosy. Looking for something to get the patient through the night, Sheskin found some thalidomide.

“He wasn’t even supposed to have it,” my doctor told me.

Sheskin administered the drug anyway and found that it did more for the patient than relieve his nausea—it improved his other symptoms as well. The drug soon went into clinical trials for leprosy and produced favorable results. Then, in 1994, a doctor named Robert D’Amato at Boston Children’s Hospital discovered that thalidomide could actually shrink tumors. Today, it’s commonly used to treat multiple myeloma.

“And it actually works,” my doctor said. “It’s one of the hottest cancer treatments out there right now.”


Contact the author: | Twitter @collinskeith
Further reading: Keith Collins wrote about being diagnosed with lymphoma for The Washington Post in 2010: At age 10, he was scared. But now?


Death of Words — Death of Worlds

Dakhil Shooshtary closes the door and steps into the past. He is standing in the middle of his study, staring at a photo. “He’s gone…” says Dakhil, pointing to a man wearing robes and a long white beard. His finger works its way down the line of men in the frame and he recites morbidly: “He’s dead… he’s dead… I’m not sure, but probably dead.” Of the 22 men and children in the photo, Dakhil thinks only a handful are still alive.

This photo marks an end. Dakhil says it was taken in the early 1930s. Most of the people are gone and so is their world. They are Mandean, members of a 1,800 year-old religion that believes running water is a connection to heaven and that Adam was the first prophet. It was taken in a city along the Iran-Iraq border where Dakhil, now almost 80, grew up. He says it was the last time they were allowed to wear the robes and headdresses that made them distinct. The next day the Persian authorities forbade it.

Today Dakhil lives in Long Island, and his study is a salvage shop of artifacts. Memory after memory line the wall. There are photos of men in white robes and headdresses standing by a river. There are sketches of crosses with white cloth draped over them and running water in almost every photo.  To the untrained eye, each photo resembles the next, but these are symbols of Mandeism.

Dakhil reaches over to the bookshelf. He brings down a door-stop-sized book. It’s one of three dictionaries he’s written in 20 years. For Dakhil, it’s more than a collection of words. It’s a repository of a civilization and a language that may soon cease to be. Mandaic scholars like Charles Häberl estimate that Dakhil is one of 300-500 remaining speakers left in the world. When you’re talking these numbers, each speaker silenced by death brings the language closer to the brink. “It’s tough,” Dakhils says. “I feel lonely.” His voice slows down. “When you speak it, you definitely feel you are Mandean.”

He started to copy down religious texts when he opened his first jewelry shop in Port Jefferson, on Long Island. Twenty-two religious texts and three dictionaries later, he admits that few, if any, people take an interest in his work. “They don’t ask,” he says. “They don’t care all that much.”

Dakhil’s grandson walks in. He doesn’t speak Mandaic, which is thought to be similar to Babylonian Hebrew. Nor do Dakhil’s wife or children. Dakhil can go about his business in English, Persian and Arabic, which he speaks fluently. But as for the language that animates him, the one that lets him feel he is Mandean, there are only a handful of people he can talk to. There’s his older brother who lives in Queens. There’s another Mandaic speaker in Idaho whom Dakhil phones occasionally. He also calls his priest in Australia.

What makes a language endangered is not so much the number of speakers, although that’s important, but whether or not it’s being passed onto children. Häberl says that few Mandaic speakers, if any, are under thirty.

Dakhil wishes he had more speakers on that list. He wants his children and grandchildren to know his language. “It’s very important to me,” he says. Then, almost in a reverie, he adds that he’d feel proud, that he’d love it if they could talk and write Mandaic. And he’s tried to teach them. Nine grand-children came to class on and off for three years. “They didn’t learn too much,” says Dakhil. Eventually he was left with a class of two. But after the death of his younger brother four months ago, Dakhil ran out of patience. “Maybe I’m a bad teacher,” he jokes. But the joke stings. “I feel sorry for them, I feel sorry for myself too.”

Some languages die brutally and suddenly, others fade gradually and slowly. All language deaths are painful, especially to the last speakers like Dakhil, who bear witness at their funerals.  Few can be brought back from extinction. If nobody uses their songs, metaphors and lullabies, these languages can only exist frozen as mp3 recordings and notes in a linguist’s shorthand.

For people who used those words to tell their parents they loved them, who prayed in them, who cursed and dreamed in them, the demise of a language is a double death. If a language is in danger, so is the world its words served.

Then there’s the idiom, the word or phrase that cannot be translated. They are the hand made, once in a lifetime creations of culture, sound and circumstance, a product that hasn’t been replicated anywhere else. They will literally be lost in translation.

According to linguist Michael Krauss, 90 percent of the approximately 6,500 languages spoken in the world today could become extinct by the end of the century.

It’s snowing, it’s March and two men dressed like Medieval courtiers stand outside New York’s Bowery Poetry Club. Step inside and the scene changes again. The man on the door asks for $10, New Yorkers take drinks to tables and three men are reading on stage.

James Lovell rocks, sways and flows to words spoken on a Caribbean island almost 300 years ago, up until the British banned its consonants, vowels and the rebellion they stood for. His is a song of exile. One that laments the fall of a hero and his last stand against the British.

“Their children are trying to resuscitate them,” goes the refrain. Two hundred years after the song was written, it’s now their great-great-great-grand-children, trying to resuscitate them. The island of St. Vincent, where James’ ancestors are from, is a long way away, in time and space. But he is the keeper of their memory and avenger of their fate. His weapon? Words. Their mother tongue, Garifuna.

The second man stands straight. His words are rigid, they march along, occasionally stopping to salute and get higher in pitch, before marching onto the next phrase. This is Breton, spoken by kings and princes from northwestern France. Its family tree includes Welsh and Irish, Celtic languages that also survived persecution.

Bob Holman is just to the left of the stage. Poet and a patron saint of endangered tongues, he travels the world, searching for languages on the brink of no-return. He preaches revival, takes exotic words and uses them in his work.

These three aren’t just here to entertain. They’re here to untie tongues that conquerors and colonists tried to oppress. They are defending a way of life they didn’t live, but whose memory is strong.

This is just one event put on by the Endangered Language Alliance in New York. Founded by linguists Daniel Kaufman, Juliette Blevins and poet Bob Holman, their “urban field-station” in downtown Manhattan is a place dedicated to recording, documenting and sometimes re-introducing languages to places where they were once lost.

But there is only so much help for an endangered language. Linguists like Kaufman can film them being spoken, transcribe and document them for posterity. But those who still speak the language have to want to save it, and this isn’t always a given. Some view the vernacular as a patois best forgotten. Their focus is on teaching themselves and their children the language of opportunity, like English.

“Optimally it’s about creating a space where the language can be spoken again, especially among younger people,” Kaufman says. “But that’s a really big undertaking because how do you create a space? It’s much more social engineering than linguistics.”

Space, then, is central to a language’s survival. It was isolation, after all, that made these languages what they were by giving them the space to evolve. But in an age of mass communication and exploding population growth, there is nowhere left to be isolated.

The Mandeans lived along the Iran-Iraq border for 2,000 years, and some say theirs is the original language of the region. But Häberl says that since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, their numbers have fallen from around 40,000 to 3,000.

They were flung into exile so suddenly that what was once a community in Iraq is now a fragmented collection of individuals spread around the world. In the past ten years, they have had to figure out how to live far from their homeland while keeping their identity and community intact, a crisis that, by comparison, Diaspora Jews had 2,000 years to resolve.

A language can take centuries to evolve, but just decades to vanish. Kaufman say it usually takes only two generations in the diaspora for a language to melt away.

Mandaic itself traces its roots back to Aramaic, an ancient language that predates Jesus Christ, its most famous speaker, by 1,200 years. During its reign as the lingua franca of the Middle East from the sixth century B.C. until the Arab conquest of the seventh century A.D., Aramaic melded with other dialects in pockets of the Middle East and spawned new ones.

Sarah Bakir grew up speaking one of them.The 24 year-old sits towards the front of a packed Syrian Orthodox church in New Jersey. She listens to a sermon in Syriac, an Aramaic dialect that is one of Mandaic’s siblings. Despite their shared origins, Mandaic and Syriac have different destinies and prognoses. Syriac may yet survive.

The priest reads from right to left, attributing sounds to words shaped like blocks. The ceremony builds in waves. He sings alone, his prayer like a lamentation, surrounding the audience with pathos. When he holds a note, he holds the congregation with him.

If music could transport, this diaspora community would be taken back to the Tur Abdin region in southeastern Turkey. The area’s mountain ranges created a natural buffer against the violence of conquerors and the influence of foreign tongues. It was here that the Syriac language and a sister dialect — a form of Neo-Aramaic that Sarah speaks — evolved.

Syriac was originally a dialect spoken in Edessa, today called Urfa, also in southeastern Turkey. It was elevated to a language of prayer because Edessa was a center of early Christian learning.

The difference between a language and a dialect is hard to pinpoint. Some say that a language is a dialect with an army, which speaks to the main difference: status. After all, they serve the same purpose–communication—but if no state has made them an official language or if no religion has made them holy, dialects remain inferior things unworthy of preservation. Which is one of the reasons why the Neo-Aramaic dialect that Sarah speaks is in danger.

There are other factors too. In the midst of the rise of nationalism in the region, World War I and the decline of the Ottoman Empire, massacres and sectarian violence were committed against ethnic and religious minorities, like the Syriac people.

Many Syriacs moved to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq and when those places became unsafe, they went to Germany, Sweden, Holland, the Unites States and Australia. Sarah is Dutch born and, even among other devout members of the Syrian Orthodox church, she is something of a rarity. Sarah, who is 24, grew up speaking this form of Neo-Aramaic with her grandparents. Holland’s liberal policies encouraged minorities to keep hold of their ethnic identities and an hour of Neo-Aramaic was taught in her elementary school.

She is in the United States with the World Council of Arameans, a political organization that represents the rights of Syriac people. During the week of their visit, they went to the United Nations and Washington D.C. to tell politicians and diplomats about the dangers faced by their people in Syria. While the rebels fear President Bashar al-Assad, this dwindling Christian minority fears the Islamization of the rebels. But right now it’s Sunday and Sarah is sitting with the rest of the congregation.

The priest gives the crowd a blessing and a woman in the front row grabs it as if it were real. She turns around and cups the hands of the woman next to her. This woman does the same to her neighbor and within a minute the blessing has gone viral. It’s ridden a wave of hands all the way from the front of the church to the people standing at the back. Sarah’s part of the chain, passing a blessing onto the friend next to her.

At the end of the ceremony, people form a line down the aisle, take the sacrament and go downstairs. In the basement, solemnity gives way to chatter. People are animated, women are coiffed and wear heavy coats, men are in pressed suits. Sarah’s sitting with a group of girls her age. They’re sipping coffee and eating what look like oversized bagels. Their table and the table next to them are full of red flyers for Aram FM, an iPhone app that streams Neo-Aramaic music 24 hours a day.

There’s a drawing on the back wall of Mor Gabriel Monastery in Southeastern Turkey. It was built in 397 A.D. and Syriac people will proudly tell you that it’s one of the oldest functioning monasteries in the world. It symbolizes religion and home. But this is part of the problem. Home is far away. “You can’t say ‘I’m going to go home, I’m going to go to Mesopotamia,’” says Sarah. And in the diaspora, memories can only sustain you for so long.

The day before, Sarah had been speaking to about 30 Syriac youth. They’d gathered to talk about identity and history. The questions raised over and over again were who they are today and who they’d be in the future. “We don’t want to go 20 years and think we’re all that’s left and we assimilated,” Sarah told them.

Assimilation is a gradual evolution to a point where you sound and act like everyone else. Sarah is worried that assimilation will erode the difference that binds them together. To her, language is a stronghold against that. “When our language dies the whole thing dies,” she said, “because that is the only unique thing we have.”

It might seem like a bleak prognosis, but it’s the clearest and most audible sign that the Syriacs are part of a distinct ethnic group. From Sarah’s perspective, their culture and cuisine is already barely distinguishable from other cultures in the Middle East. But if you speak Neo-Aramaic, you are speaking to people who came from the same place as you.

During the same event, the organizers asked how many people in the room could read the language. Seven hands slowly went up. When asked how many people understood it, only three people raised their hands.

At the event, you heard over and over that it’s up to the younger generation to keep the language going. But this is an uphill battle, not because of a lack of good intentions, but because of a lack of need. To find a job or go to school in a new society, you need to know the right words to fill out the application or take the tests. You have to create a desire so strong that it will override necessity.

You stand a chance of keeping your language around longer if you live among many people who speak the language of home. If you’re a Mandarin speaker in New York, the population is so dense and there are enough Mandarin-speaking shops, schools and churches, that you need never learn English. But it’s likely that the second generation will, and so the slide begins.

Fay Shabo, 65, is an active member of the Syriac community. She is also trying to preserve her and Sarah’s language. “This is a place where a Soryoyo (a Syriac) gets lost so easily,” says Fay. The American melting pot both helps and hinders their cause. She describes the United States as a place where “nobody can step on you,” and the government makes new immigrants welcome. But it was surviving persecution that made this community strong. In America, the virtue of tolerance has a flipside: young people go off to college and forget their roots or marry people from different churches and trade their traditions for their spouses’.

What can people like Sarah, Fay and Dakhil do to stop the inevitable evolution of words? Dialects are in flux, constantly absorbing the characteristics of neighboring tongues. Neo-Aramaic will meld with other languages, as its ancestor before. In two generations, Neo-Aramaic spoken in Holland may be so full of Dutch influences that its speakers won’t understand the Neo-Aramaic spoken in Sweden or England.

After Fay has said her piece, she stands with Sarah and the others, and says a prayer. “Every single participant here Lord, fill his heart and mind, with your love first and then with love of his nation, with his church, with the love of his ancestors.” She then leaves it to those assembled to figure out for themselves what that future looks like.

At a party that same night Sarah sat around a table with friends. Fay and the other guests had left. People were packing up, telling them it was time to go. But they stayed and sang. “I am Aramaic, I am Aramaic, In my veins I am Aramaic, In the land of the brave, We all come from Tur Abdin.”

The future of the language may be unclear, but, at least, for that night, it was alive.

Escape to Obscurity

It was July in Darfur, at least 120 degrees. You almost couldn’t even breathe because of the heat. When you inhaled, you wished you hadn’t. Oxygen wasn’t worth the pain of having a thousand knives invading your lungs. I stood next to our house in El Fasher, North Darfur and waited. There was always a lot of waiting in Darfur in the summer. Nobody went anywhere in the heat of the day. On the horizon, a mirage shimmered over the sand, threatening to devour you if you ventured too far.

A knock on the metal gate of the compound broke the silence, and I heard feet scuffling outside. The security guard opened the door, and in walked three young Darfuri women. One woman made an immediate impression. She burst through the entryway, threw her hands forward, and hollered greetings at our security guards as if they were her best friends and she hadn’t seen them in years.

“Al salaam alaikum! Qayf? Tamaam? Tamaam!” She rambled off a litany of questions and exclamations, as one does when greeting anyone in Darfur, without really seeking the answer: How’s your health? How’s your family? How’s your family’s health? I hope their health is good. I hope everything is good. Is everything good? Is everything alright? How are you? Are you good? How is everything?

Then she strode up to me, her blue jalabiya fanning out behind her as if she were an angel about to take flight. Her face turned serious, the laugh disappeared, and she looked me straight in the eye.

“I am Hawa.”

After sharing cups of tea, we all sat down to hear what Hawa had to say. She took her place between the other women on our couch that had faded from green to yellow in the desert sun. She spoke with authority, gesturing animatedly as she told her story. As I watched her, I thought back on my diplomatic training course that emphasized the use of hand gestures in giving speeches. Hawa would have aced the course.

At moments I could not even focus on what she was saying; her vivaciousness drowned it out. She smiled as she spoke, even though she was recounting heartbreaking stories. How could she smile while talking about these tragedies? I wondered about all the sad secrets hidden behind her smile. Women raped by soldiers, children fighting over PlumpyNut packs, teenage boys stolen in the night by rebels on pick-up trucks. Hawa was not afraid to tell me these things. She was a natural leader, catapulted to where she was by the horrors she had witnessed. She knew she could be arrested for talking to me. She knew she could be arrested just for standing outside our house. But she didn’t care. It almost seemed she wanted to be arrested—to become a victim for her cause.

I thought to myself: What will happen to this woman? Will she ever leave Darfur? Little did we both know on that afternoon, one day Hawa would be living in a shelter in rural New Jersey. She would be scraping money to get by, hoping for a chance to win a scholarship to an American school. She would be lost in a world she did not know how to lead. After surviving a war and thriving in hell, Hawa would be ill-suited for a peaceful life.

Hawa arrived in the United States on March 3, 2012. She had been awarded the International Woman of Courage Award, an honor bestowed upon 10 women each year by the U.S. Department of State. To accept her award and participate in a series of conferences, Hawa was granted a visa to travel to the U.S.

She first touched down in Detroit, where she had a layover. When she stepped off the gangway into the airport, she started laughing. An airport official asked, “Why are you laughing?” And Hawa said, “I am just happy. I am so glad. This place I was dreaming about for long years.” She sat down in the terminal to wait for her connecting flight. She took out a notebook and began writing. She wrote, “There are so many people. This is the United States. This is where I’m going to be… This is a new life. This is a new dream.”

She arrived in Washington D.C. the next day and set in motion plans to claim asylum. She would not be returning to Sudan.

It was February 27, 2003, a Thursday, when the janjaweed militia invaded Tina, Hawa’s hometown, about 75 kilometers southwest of El Fasher. Hawa, 18 at the time, was at home when all of the sudden shots rang out. She fled. She was separated from her family in the mayhem, but she continued running anyway. A stray bullet struck her right hand, but she didn’t stop. She didn’t know where to go. “Everybody was running, running, and running,” said Hawa. “But I was one of the ladies from the village who was kidnapped. About 50 ladies from the village were kidnapped by janjaweed.”

Hawa had no idea what had happened to her family. Blood flowed from her wounded hand. She had no choice but to go along with her captors. She suffered terribly at the hands of the janjaweed, in ways so personal she finds it painful to discuss. The women were taken to Menawashi, a town south of Tina. Once in Menawashi, Hawa discovered her cousin, Aziza, 12, had also been kidnapped. The two of them embraced, and immediately began plotting an escape.

As the sun sank below the desert horizon, Hawa and Aziza put their plan in motion. “The janjaweed pushed all the ladies to go with the animals in the valley where there were big trees,” said Hawa. She and Aziza hid behind some trees through the night. In the morning, when the militia forced the women to trek onwards, Hawa and Aziza remained silent in the bushes. “They left us behind the trees. Then, we ran to some village near Menawashi—I don’t remember the name.” In the nearby village, a woman named Zahara took Hawa and Aziza into her home. It was clear Aziza was weak, so Zahara gave them both food and water. “You must follow this big road to North Darfur, to El Fasher,” she told Hawa. “Even if you find any checkpoints for police or military. If they stop you, just say you are coming from this village and you want to go to Zam Zam.” Hawa did not know Zahara, but she trusted her enough to follow her advice. She and Aziza set off northwards, hoping to reach El Fasher without violence enveloping them again.

After three days and almost 100 kilometers on foot, Hawa saw the checkpoint at Zam Zam ahead of them on the road—the last checkpoint before El Fasher. Aziza’s frail legs could not carry her any further. “Aziza was very, very tired,” said Hawa. “She wasn’t able to go, and I put her on my back.” Hawa trudged the final stretch to the checkpoint with Aziza on her back until others saw them approaching. People ran to them to help. Aziza was whisked away to a medical tent. Hawa set about trying to find her family, as many Darfuris from other villages had fled to Zam Zam, where an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp had been set up.

Hawa searched and searched but found no one from her family. Finally, she found someone who knew where they might be. “Everyone from Tina went into El Fasher,” she was told.

Her journey was not yet complete. Determined to find her family, Hawa collected Aziza, and they set off on foot yet again. Twenty more kilometers. One more day. They arrived in El Fasher in the evening the next day. Hawa and Aziza were reunited with their families and prepared to set up temporary homes in El Fasher. They planned to return to Tina as soon as they could.

But they did not yet know that a war had begun. They did not know that the janjaweed would invade other villages, that rebels would take up arms against the militia, that Darfuris seeking refuge would pour into El Fasher by the thousands. They did not know that the garden where they had set up their temporary shelters would explode into Darfur’s biggest displaced persons’ camp and become home to over 100,000 Darfuris.

Hawa would never return to Tina. She started going to school in El Fasher. She studied English, and she worked hard. It paid off. She landed a job as an interpreter with the United Nations peacekeeping force that was dispatched to Darfur. Her influence in the camp, now called Abu Shouk, grew and grew. She started working with international human rights organizations. She was not afraid to speak out about her experiences. And then one day in July 2010, she knocked on the metal door at my house in El Fasher. She marched in, sat down, drank her tea, and launched into her life story.

After two more years of meetings at my house and two more years of evading Sudanese authorities, Hawa fled to Cairo for her safety. The Sudanese government had arrested her on May 6, 2011 for her advocacy work. She was released two months later and escaped to Cairo soon after. From Egypt, she traveled onwards to the United States to accept her International Woman of Courage Award and claim asylum.

Given her reputation as a Darfuri human rights activist, Hawa had a justifiable claim for asylum. On February 25, 2013, she went in for her asylum interview the way she went into everything—brimming with confidence. She noted the date was just two days shy of the tenth anniversary of Tina’s destruction.

Three days later, asylum was granted. Hawa could not have been happier. She was safe. No more scurrying around the camp at night to meet other activists. No more keeping lists of detained protesters. No more furtive phone calls to Darfuris in exile. But now there were new challenges. Hawa didn’t have a home or a job. Her English was far from perfect. All she had was a list of Darfuris living on the East Coast who might help her find her way. Hawa moved in with Aisha Adam, a Darfuri who emigrated to the U.S. in 2003 and was living in New Jersey. Aisha attended community college each day. Hawa stayed at home and spent her time researching education programs and funding opportunities.

The day eventually came when Hawa had to leave Aisha’s home. Aisha, who was receiving government benefits, was told she could not host anyone in her home while she was on welfare. Hawa packed up her things. But where would she go? In Darfur, Hawa always had many places she could go when she was in trouble. By relying on “wastah,” the Arabic term for under the table connections, Hawa always found a way out of her conundrums. But “wastah” could not save her in America. She was on her own.

On a cold day in February, Hawa walked into the Family Promise shelter in Flemington, New Jersey.

“It was very difficult,” she said. “When I was there, I was saying ‘oh my god, nine years I was in a shelter in Darfur. And now again, in the USA, I am also staying in a shelter again.’” Hawa was glad to be in America, but ashamed to be living in a shelter. WNYC reporter Robert Hennelly contacted her to do a story about her life, but Hawa refused. She did not want her family and friends back home to learn she was homeless.

“Every night we were going to a different church, waiting in line. There is somebody preparing to give dinner during every night,” she said. Under the shelter’s supervision, Hawa moved from church to church every two weeks, never sleeping in one place long enough to make it feel like home. People in Flemington helped feed them. “Every night came different family members. Every night somebody brought the food,” said Hawa. “Sometimes pizza, sometimes rice, sometimes different kinds of food.”

In Darfur, the name “Hawa Salih” meant something. From the northern capital of El Fasher to the western towns bordering Chad, Darfuris had heard of the brave Hawa. People whom she met smiled admiringly when they spoke of her. “Ahh, yes, Hawa,” they would say. “She is strong.”

Inside the church in Flemington, New Jersey, nobody knew Hawa’s name.

After two months of bouncing around from church to church, Hawa finally caught a break. Kait Picco, her asylum lawyer, was able to enroll her in a government program through which Hawa would receive benefits for five months. Around the same time, a community organization called Hias placed Hawa with a host family in Philadelphia. Hawa arrived in Philadelphia, moved into her own bedroom at the home of Lynne Iser and Mordecha Liebling, and started meeting with social workers.

Picco and others advising Hawa told her she needed to find a job – any job – so she could be self-sufficient. But Hawa was stubborn. She said the only thing she wanted to work on was promoting human rights in Darfur. Anything short of that simply did not interest her. Hawa said she did not come to America to flee her problems; she came here to continue her advocacy for Darfur unhindered by government persecution.

Within days of arriving in the U.S. in 2012, Hawa had stood between Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton to receive her International Woman of Courage Award. Wearing a turquoise jalabiya and hugging the First Lady, Hawa and a crowd of hundreds listened as then—Secretary of State Clinton gave a speech honoring Hawa’s bravery. Applause drowned out Hawa’s “thanks you”s.

Before, Hawa was famous among Darfuris. But now, her fame had spread to the United States. Why, then, should it be so difficult to find a job? Given her celebrity status, Hawa thought it would be simple to find a way to support herself and continue her work. She did not foresee waiting in line to sign up for Medicaid or relying on her lawyer to find her a home.

“She’s really good at networking for human rights causes, but not necessarily to sell herself,” Picco said. “The sense I’m getting is that she isn’t taking the initiative with trying to pull strings at various nonprofits. She’s got the contacts, she’s got to make it happen.”

Hawa can be forceful and magnetic. She is talkative and insistent—“Save Darfur! Release all political prisoners!” And yet she is oddly passive when it comes to building a new life, as if fame alone should make her lofty aspirations come true.

“Her English isn’t great enough to just plop her into the UN,” Picco said. “She’ll be stuck in a job that she’s totally overqualified for, like cleaning or hospitality-kind work. We told her anything like that would be a temporary stepping stone to something better.” But Hawa won’t listen.

Eileen Weiss, co-founder of the New York Coalition for Sudan, an advocacy group that works with Darfuris, said she often sees prominent Darfuris arrive in America and take low-paying jobs out of desperation. “Maybe over there they were political leaders or teachers,” she said. “But over here, because of language and the time it takes to adjust and get visas, many of them are driving cabs, and that might not be what they want to do with their lives.”

When Hawa refused to consider a job she thought was beneath her ambitions, Picco didn’t force her to take it. Instead, she set about finding ways for Hawa to advance her studies so she could earn her Master’s degree and land the human rights position she covets. Picco has bought Hawa five months of time with the government program. Five months to live with her host family. Five months to network with organizations. And five months to improve her English. At the end of August, the government money will stop, and Hawa will be ineligible for welfare benefits.

Hawa is throwing herself into studying for her English proficiency exam and seeking academic scholarships. But she has not considered other jobs after August. Hawa has only her ambitious path and nowhere in her plan is there room for menial work.

“I signed letters to Barack Obama about security in Darfur,” she said. “Again in January I signed letters about the humanitarian situation. And to the Secretary of State John Kerry. I keep in touch with many of activists even to Abu Shouk camp.” She frantically rattled off a list of organizations she has volunteered for over the past year. “I worked with Act for Sudan. And the Sudan Emergency Summit-for lobbying and conference. And the Enough Project—John Prednergast (founder of the Enough Project) selected me to be an advisor for the program, to help to develop strategy and planning.”

After all the volunteering she has done, no one offered her a full-time job. And after all her speeches on the empowerment of women, she got nothing in return. She did not seek, nor was she given, any honorarium. Instead, she returned to the shelter in Flemington.

In the second week of April, after being in the U.S. for 13 months, Hawa finally started to learn how the system works. She figured out that no amount of fame would earn her the job she dreams of. While her “wastah” with human rights advocates might well help in the long run, she knows she must begin to act, for and by herself.

A few weeks ago, I saw Hawa for the first time in over a year. I almost didn’t even recognize her—she was no longer the effusive young woman in the blue jalabiya I met three years ago. She was dressed in a Western-style suit with her hair pulled back in a braided bun. She blended in with all the New Yorkers bustling by on Amsterdam Avenue. We strolled around West Harlem with two of her friends, one of them Aisha Adam, her first host in America. We chatted about Hawa’s plans for the future—school or work or whatever comes her way. Later, she told me she had drafted a resume, and asked me to write a recommendation letter for her. She listed a few organizations she planned to reach out to for jobs and asked me for suggestions, too. She sounded excited, and claimed she was finally going to start working. “Insha’Allah, Hawa, insha’Allah,” I cautioned. She cleared her throat a little bit and her voice dropped an octave. “Yes, yes, you are right, Kate. Insha’Allah…”

Death and Life in Brownsville

I saw a memorial in the heart of Brownsville, Brooklyn, and felt as if I had been transported to a different time and place. Here, on a street corner in New York City’s most dangerous neighborhood, people chose to stop their daily routines and remember someone killed during hers. Purple balloons hung from a deli’s display window and a large framed picture of the murdered woman stood at a table next to pages of memories from her loved ones. Her orphaned children wore T-shirts emblazoned with her photograph. Others attending wore pins and ribbons, each a remembrance in some way. The crowd swelled to about 150 people and the memorial service began. Speakers talked about the woman’s life and what a wonderful mother she was. As they spoke, I found myself in another world where death was quick and random—Kashmir.

Two years before walking through the streets of Brownsville, I was in Kashmir, where in the summer of 2010, 117 boys were killed by the Indian military. This valley in the Himalayan mountains, a place of great physical beauty, has been locked in a seemingly endless war that has left 70,000 Kashmiris dead.


In 2010, there were government-imposed curfews, a government ban on all media, random arrests and high emotions everywhere you looked. As news of each killing emerged, more people took to the streets to protest. But eventually, the protests ebbed. As they did, Kashmiris slipped into a life of resignation and with it, apathy, as if to say, what can be done? As the death toll rose, Kashmiris stopped collectively pausing to remember each individual that died. There were simply too many. It was simply too much.

But things were different in Brownsville, at least on this day. Over the course of two hours, police officers, clergymen and women, friends and family spoke of the murdered woman.

So much of Brownsville reminded me of Kashmir—the constant patrolling of security forces, the ever-present fear that life was fragile, and could end painfully in an instant. But that moment in time, of pausing to remember the dead—that felt different to me. And as I spent time in this Brooklyn neighborhood, I began to see that unlike the growing weary resignation that I had felt that summer in Kashmir, people in Brownsville coped with the random death around them not by turning inward—but by turning to each other.

She was everywhere you looked—on the living room walls, the kitchen fridge, the rooms where her children slept. She was on custom-made T-shirts and lapel pins her children still wore. She was in her fiancé’s poetry that sat framed in the narrow hallway, in hundreds of cards and notes from friends and strangers, some taped to the walls, others waiting to be put up. Zurana Horton is here, in this tiny Brownsville, Brooklyn apartment that seven of her 13 children called home. She was everywhere you looked, and yet, she is nowhere to be found.

“Your children are not supposed to go before you do,” said Denise Peace, as her eyes welled up with tears. “I couldn’t believe my baby was gone.”

Zurana Horton was 34 when she was shot dead in broad daylight. On the afternoon of Oct. 21, 2011, she was walking home after picking up one of her daughters from elementary school. As she, her daughter and other children passed a supermarket, gunfire cut through the air. People screamed and ran for cover. Horton stood in front of the children, shielding them. Twelve shots were fired. One hit a woman and another hit an 11-year-old girl. They would both survive. Another struck Horton in the chest, and seconds later, she fell over into a pool of her own blood.

This wasn’t the first time there was gunfire at the corner of Pitkin Avenue and Watkins Street. Just a week earlier, witnesses said there was an unexplained gunfire exchange that left a bullet hole in the supermarket window, but injured no one.

This wasn’t the first time Peace lost a child to gun violence, either.

Denise Peace, who is 56, was left to ponder the unfathomable loss of yet another one of her children to gunfire.

“The hardest thing for me this time,” she said, “was burying another child again.”

In 1991, she lost her 16-year-old son, Quan. He was shot in a robbery in Bushwick. Another son, Zacquran, was shot and killed in the same neighborhood in 2010.

“Immediately after Zurana passed away, I was really angry,” Peace said. “So angry that I got numb. I didn’t know how I felt. I didn’t know what I felt. All I knew was that I couldn’t break down. I had to be strong for my grandchildren.”

“Some of the children still don’t know what happened to their mother. When you ask the two babies who their mother is, they’ll point to me.”

The oldest of her children was 18, the youngest just a year old.

“She gave her life for those kids, and she would have done it all again because that’s just the kind of person she was,” said Horton’s ex-boyfriend, O’Niel Vaughn, 43, the father of eight of her children.
Horton was planning to marry her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day in 2012.

Everyone you meet in Brownsville seems to have a story, or rather a variation on the same story—being part of a gang, or knowing someone, always younger than 25, who was, or is. Brownsville is the murder capital of New York City and has been for years. It has the highest concentration of low-income public housing in the United States, and is that rare Brooklyn neighborhood untouched by gentrification. There are spots in Brownsville where it is impossible to see anything but the looming projects of the New York City Housing Authority. Brownsville is a labyrinth of these housing projects, which are home to some 21,000 people. In a sense, it has always been so for Brownsville, which decades ago was a predominantly Jewish, working-class neighborhood that was also home to the notorious Jewish crime syndicate, Murder, Inc. Such was Brownsville’s unsavory reputation that its residents would claim they lived in adjoining East New York, which today is no safer.

Decades later, Brownsville experienced a shift in population, as white people moved out and black people moved in. In 1968, the rising racial tensions between the black residents and white teachers boiled over into a contentious teachers strike. Today, Brownsville feels like the Brooklyn that time forgot. Even once dangerous Bushwick is having a renaissance—a place of gun violence, joblessness, entrenched poverty, made all the worse, and more deadly by turf-fueled gang violence originating from inside 18 large public housing complexes, built side-by-side through the middle of the neighborhood.

The man recently convicted of killing Zurana Horton was part of a loosely knit gang. At the time of the shooting, Andrew Lopez was 18 years old. He had not been aiming at Horton—she happened to be standing in the way as he stood on a rooftop and tried to shoot at a rival gang member.

Lopez’s Young Guns gang and its rival 8 Block are part of a new generation of gangs in Brownsville, two of the 300 across the city that the NYPD keeps tabs on. Some of the gang members are as young as 10. Police say they are violent, unpredictable, emotionally driven, and armed. The Young Guns and 8 Block live in and around two housing projects, Glenmore Plaza and the Howard Houses. Their grip on the neighborhood is so powerfully menacing that people are too scared to call the police, and feel themselves in danger whenever they step outside.

“It used to be that I never wanted to go out at night because it was too dangerous,” said a woman who chose to remain anonymous. “But Zurana was killed in the afternoon, in broad daylight. There is no safe time here anymore. There is no peace of mind anymore.”

For every hour that passed in Brownsville in 2012, a crime was committed, according to the Brownsville Police Department’s annual crime report. And since January of 2013, there have been three murders, 14 rapes, 120 robberies and 174 assaults in this particular neighborhood. In just the past few weeks, a woman was stabbed in the early morning hours, a man was shot inside the supermarket he worked at, and another was found dead outside a church on a Sunday morning with three gunshot wounds to his back and one on his shoulder. In 2011, Brownsville’s 73rd police district reported the highest murder rate in the city. Brownsville also has significantly higher dropout rates and incidents of violence in its schools, in addition to low test scores and high truancy rates.

In a place so consumed by violence and the harsh realities that come with it, the people of Brownsville look to one another—for safety, for strength in numbers—in good ways, and sometimes in bad.

The young boys that join Brownsville gangs often say they do so for protection.

“I didn’t exactly have the best childhood,” said one former gang member. “And some of my friends came from abusive homes. A lot of us had no choice but to join one gang or another.”

Said another, “They’re my brothers. They’ve got my back. I know they will look out for me.”

The mothers of the slain children look out for one another, too, even as they resume the myriad tasks of parenting—this time for the grandchildren left behind.

The grandmothers gather at a small playground tucked between the projects. The children play on swing sets and slides, and their grandmothers keep an eye out.

“If we don’t watch over them, they will end up in the same places as those that killed their parents—in jail, or in one of the gangs here,” said Inez Rodriguez, a grandmother. “And the way this neighborhood has been over these few years, I know I wouldn’t trust anyone else with these young minds anyway.”

To live in Brownsville often means having to defy—and in some ways redefine—traditional definitions of family, of social life, of what it means to be part of a community. The 2010 U.S. Census reported that the number of grandparents who are primary caregivers to grandchildren has risen 12.8% since 2000, from about 2.4 million to more than 2.7 million. Between 1990 and 2000, census figures indicate the number of U.S. children being raised by grandparents rose 30%.

In Brownsville, there are so many women caring for their grandchildren that they have a support group. In 2010, the NYPD and Brooklyn clergy came together to create Grandmothers Love Over Violence. The grandmothers share stories, compare legal and parenting advice, cry on a friendly shoulder, pray and simply let off steam. The program makes it easier for grandmothers to learn how to work with their grandchildren, and makes it comfortable for them to relate to police officers and get help.

“We’ve become a group like no other,” said Rodriguez. “It is one thing to know you will never see your children again. It’s another to be reminded of that every day, every time you stare into the eyes of the young kids they’ve left behind.”

“It’s been my place of comfort,” said Denise Peace. “Because of them, I know I’m not alone in this.”

Every month, the grandmothers walk through the doors of Mt. Sion Baptist Church on a busy corner near a loud highway overpass. Some lean on walkers and canes, some are in wheelchairs. Some have toddlers in their arms. These are the moments for the women to think about themselves, and one another; their grandchildren and great grandchildren are in daycare, at school, or being cared for by babysitters or relatives.

“I thought I was done taking care of babies, and now I have this little princess,” said Daphne Georgalas as she held her infant granddaughter in her lap. “If this happened to me years ago, I don’t think I would’ve been able to handle it. But now I know God is watching over us, and he’s helping me watch over her. On my worst days, or when my shoulders ache from the exhaustion of taking care of the kids, I just pause and think about that. Take a deep breath and carry on.”

“I believe I’m stronger today because I know what my purpose is in life now,” said another grandmother choosing to remain anonymous. Like other grandmothers here, she explained that her faith helps her get through every day.

“It’s hard, but it does feel good to know I belong to a strong community.”

A short walk away from the church, a group of teenage boys exchange greetings and fist bumps. They are part of a gang, but one that is relatively new, and they’re still deciding what to call themselves. Gangs in Brownsville aren’t the way they were back in the 80s and early 90s—massive, corporate-style drug organizations were driven out years ago from the streets of Brooklyn by aggressive policing and the prospect of finding jobs. Left behind is a fractured drug market filled with unstructured and crowded clusters of close-knit, hard-to-identify gangs. They’re still gangs, but the label is often more stylistic than organizational. Instead of a couple of big gangs, there are dozens of small ones, often made up of cousins and next-door neighbors. And for many, joining one of these gangs is like a social acceptance shortcut—it provides boys who are young and unsure of themselves a prepackaged identity, and built-in friendships.

“It made me feel important, made me feel I was somebody,” recalls Greg Lamar, a former gang member. “There was nothing else to do here, there still isn’t. I was young, restless, bored. Joining a gang seemed like a quick fix for everything that wasn’t working for me.”

There are others paths. Sonny Townsend is one of a growing number of people in Brownsville who has picked up a video camera instead of a gun. “I belong here,” he said. “No matter what goes down in the ‘Ville, it’s my ‘Ville.” Townsend will walk through the projects with his friend Money, and interview residents on camera about their hopes and fears for Brownsville. And often, they get people to open up in ways no journalist has been able to. On his YouTube channel, Townsend has about 70 videos—some are part of a series he calls the “Walk thru Brownsville projects,” which include the interviews as well as footage of them walking through the projects and explaining what life was like before.

Townsend says this is his way of “showing Brownsville from the inside.” It is something he chose to do because of his own frustration with life, and frustration with the way the media covers Brownsville.
“Journalists come here only when someone gets shot,” he said. “Well what about what happens before that and after that?”

“Some people, they’re afraid of change,” Townsend said. “They don’t want to change their hoods, don’t want to change their lifestyles, even if it benefits them and their children. They will complain about what they see, but they fear change.”

For some, however, the violence is overwhelming; they are ready to move out.

“The projects are just like one big prison in my view,” said Darryl Odom, 49.

Odom knows what real prison is like—he served 13 years for armed robbery until his release in 2010.

“When I got out, I wanted to be a new man, a better man. But no one knows how tough that is, especially when all that’s around you is pulling you in the wrong direction.”

Odom is currently unemployed, and said he is increasingly frustrated with life in Brownsville. At the end of the month, he is packing his bags and getting on a bus “to anywhere but here.”

Danielle Johns is only 10, but she speaks as though she’s much older.

“What goes on in Brownsville? Looting, shooting, raping, and killing. There’s nothing else here,” she said. “My Mom says we’re leaving this place and moving to North Carolina.”

“You can get a gun like a box of diapers around here,” said Josephine Spearman, 60, whose 31-year-old son Maurice was shot dead in 2010. “Like a box of diapers. Think about that. Nothing makes sense here.”

“There are too many kids raising kids. When I was growing up, if the neighbor saw we was up to something, she’d whoop my ass. It ain’t nothing like it used to be,” said a woman who asked to be identified only as Doll.

“All our men are locked up or dead. There is no future. Nobody cares anymore. There is no love.”

As she sits in her apartment living room waiting on her grandchildren to come home from school, Denise Peace wipes off the dust from a photo of her daughter Zurana Horton.

“I’ve thought about leaving this place, lots of times,” she said. “But if women like me move away, what’s going to happen to Brownsville? What’s going to happen to all the other children who can’t leave? This place is in desperate need of attention, in desperate need of love. We can’t look away anymore.”

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