The Threshold and the Jolt of Pain

Personal Testament

Like most boys in their teens, I wondered once in a while how I would take torture. Badly, I thought. Later I thought not so badly, as I saw myself under the pressures of danger or emergency, once when a lion cub grabbed my hand in its mouth and I wrestled its lips for half a minute with my free hand. Another summer when I fought forest fires in a crew of Indians in the West, we stood up under intense heat and thirst, watching the fires crackle toward us irresistibly while we waited to see whether the fire lines that we had cut were going to bold. I climbed over the lip of a high waterfall; I scratched inside a hippo­potamus’s capacious jaws; I faced a pistol one day in Wyoming with some degree of fortitude. However, I knew all this elan would vanish if my sexual glands were approached. The initiation to join the Boy Scouts in our town was to have one’s balls squeezed, so I never joined. Even to have my knuckle joints ground together in a handshake contest reduced me to quick surrender something about bone on bone. I steered clear of the BB-gun fights in my neighborhood, and I could be caught in a chase and tied up easily by someone slower who yelled as if he were gaining ground, so I made friends with most of the toughies as a defensive measure.

I was much given to keeping pets and showering care on them, but I had a sadistic streak as well. In boarding school, my roommate got asthma attacks when he was jumped on, and I always backed away laughing when his tormentors poured into the room. There was another, rather nice boy, whom I seldom picked on myself. With sincere horror I watched a game grip the Florentine fancy of our corridor, wherein we, the inmates, divided in teams, pushed him back and forth as a human football from goal to goal. Since his name was Bingham, the game was either called that or else “Pushes.” The crush at the center, where he was placed, was tremendous and, though no one remembered, I’d thought it up!

My first love affair was with a Philadelphian, a girl 27. That is, she was the girl whom I slept with first. She was a love in the sense she loved me. I was close and grateful to her but didn’t love her (I’d loved one girl earlier whom I hadn’t slept with). She lived in one of those winsome houses that they hav·e down there, with a tiled backyard, three floors, and three rooms. We wandered along the waterfront and spent Saturdays at the street market, which is the largest and visually richest street market in the United States. I really was not an ogre to her, but I did by stages develop the habit of beating her briefly with my belt or hairbrush before we made love, a practice which I have foregone ever since. This experience gives me a contempt for pornography of that arch, gruesome genre, quite in vogue nowa­days as psychological “exploration,” where whipping occurs but the flesh recovers its sheen overnight and the whippee doesn’t hang her (him) self one fine strapping dawn, propelling the whipper into the nervous breakdown which he is heading for.

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I saw eventual disaster ahead and I didn’t go deeply into this vein of sensation, just as I was shrewd enough as a boy not to be picked on often or to suffer more than a few accidents. Once I ran my hand through an apple-crusher and once I imitated a child’s stutter at summer camp, thereby (or so I imagined) picking the malady up at age six. Almost my only pangs, then, were this stutter, which still remains in my mouth after twenty-nine years. It may strike other people as more than a spasm of pain of a kind which I haven’t time for or time to regard as anything else. It’s like someone who has a lesion or twist in his small intestine which hurts him abruptly and of which he is hardly aware anymore. The well-grooved wince that I make seems to keep my face pliant and reasonably young.

Somerset Maugham described his bitter discovery when he was a boy that prayer was no help: He woke up next morning still clamped to his adamant stutter. I was more of a pantheist, so I kept trusting to the efficacy of sleep itself, or the lilting lift that caused birds to fly. Also I went to a bunch of speech therapists. At the Ethical Culture School in New York, for example, a woman taught me to stick my right hand in my pocket and write the first letter of the word I was stuttering on again and again. This was supposed to distract me from stuttering, and it did for a week or two. The trouble was that watching me play pocket pool that way was more unsettling to other people than the original ailment it was meant to cure. At a camp in northern Michigan I was trained by a team from the university to speak so slowly that in effect I wasn’t speaking at all, I spoke with the same gradualism as a flower grows. Of course I didn’t stutter, but it was so absurdly tardy a process my mind unhinged itself from what was going on. Then, in Cambridge, Mas­sachusetts, a young fellow fresh out of the University of Iowa — and oh how he stuttered! — took the most direct approach. He got me to imitate myself deliberately, which was hard on me since I was already terribly tired of stuttering, and to stare, as well, at the people whom I was talking to in order to find out what their reactions were. I found out, for one thing, that some of my friends and about one fourth or one fifth of the strangers I met smiled when the difficulty occurred, though they generally turned their heads to the side or wiped their mouths with one hand to avoid the smile. Life seemed simpler from that time on if I avoided looking at anybody when I was stuttering badly, whoever he was, and I wasn’t so edgily on the alert to see if I’d spit inadvertently. Not that I lacked understanding for the smilers, though, because for many years I too had had the strange impulse, hardly controllable, to smile if somebody bumped his head on a low door-lintel or received sad news. The phenomenologists say this is a form of defense. It goes with childhood especially, and I stopped indulging in it one night in Boston when I was in a police patrol wagon. A friend and I had been out for a walk, he was hit by a car, and, as he woke from unconsciousness during the ride and asked what had happened, I found myself grinning down at him while I answered. A week or two later I was walking past an apartment building just as a rescue squad carried a would-be suicide out to the street. He was alive, on a stretcher. When our eyes touched, he smiled impenetrably, but I didn’t.

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I learned not to write notes. You put yourself at someone’s mercy more when you write him a note than if you just stand there like a rhinoceros and snort. He will assume that your trouble is mental rather than physical and may even be pleased, but he usually has assumed the same thing about himself.

I could write a Stutterer’s Guide to Europe, too: the titters in old Vienna, the knowing English remembering their King, the raw scorching baitings I met with in Greece, surrounded sometimes like a muzzled bear. The fourth means of effecting a cure which I heard about was based on the fact that stutterers are able to sing without stuttering. The victim should swing his arm like a big pendulum and talk in time to this — which was obviously a worse fate than his impediment. Though I didn’t try it, I was sent to a lady voice teacher who laid my hand on her conspicuous chest so that I could “feel her breathe.” For the moment the lessons worked wonderfully. If I wasn’t speechless, I spoke in a rush.

Stammering (a less obtrusive word I used to prefer) apparently is not unattractive to women. It’s a masculine encumbrance; five times as many men as women do it. I was told once or twice by girls by way of a pick-me-up that they’d loved someone “for” his stutter, and when I went into my spasms at parties, if a woman didn’t step back she stepped forward whereas the men did neither. The female instinct does not apply nearly so favorably to other afflictions — I was seldom alone while I was in Europe. In our glib age the stutterer has even been considered a kind of contemporary hero, a supposed Honest Man who is unable to gab with the media people. Beyond the particular appeal of this image, it does seem to suit a writer. Publishers are fastidious types, and some whom I’ve met have sidled away in distress from my flabbering face as soon as they could, but they probably remembered my name if they caught it. The purity image or Billy Budd stuff didn’t intrigue them, just the hint of compulsion and complexity. Though I don’t greatly go for either picture, in social terms I’ve thought of my stutter as sort of miasma behind the Ivy League-looking exterior. People at parties take me for William Buckley until I begin, so I keep my mouth shut and smile prepossessingly just as long as I can.

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Being in these handcuffs vocally made me a desperate, devoted writer at twenty. I worked like a dog, choosing each word. I wrote two full-length novels — eight years’ work — in iambic meter and a firehose style. We sent out 300 review copies of the second of these and received, I think, only three reviews. This was new pain, a man’s career pain, with its attendant stomach trouble and neck and back cramps. A couple of years after that I got divorced, and bawled like a half-­butchered bull for maybe an hour, rolled up on the floor of my apartment, while the two homosexuals next door listened in silence close to the wall, wondering whom they ought to contact. It was a purge, but the pain I remember of that experience was an earlier scene. I’d announced to my wife, whom I loved and still love, my belief that we needed to separate. The next time we talked, she crossed the room, came to my chair and knelt beside my knees, and asked what was going to become of each of us. That is the most painful splinter in my life, the most painful piece of the past. With variations the ache was prolonged through many, many fugitive suppers. In fact, we still meet, holding hands, laughing at each other’s jokes until we feel tears.

Who knows which qualities are godly? Pain probably makes us a bit godly, though, as tender love does. It makes us rue and summarize, it makes us bend and yield up ourselves. Pain is a watchdog medically, telling us when to consult a doctor, and then it’s the true-blue dog at the bedside who rivals the relatives for fidelity. Last summer my father died of cancer. We had made peace, pretty much, a few years before. Though he had opposed my desire to be a writer, he ended up trying to write a book, too, and he turned over to me at the last an old family history which he’d been hiding ever since I’d become literate, partly because it mentioned a lot of muteness among my ancestors and partly in order to prevent my exploiting the stories. My voice and my liberal opinions grew a little more clarion in the household during the months he was dying. From my standpoint, I suppose, I was almost ready for him to die, but I was very earnestly sorry for every stage of rough handling involved in the process and for his own overriding regret that his life was cut off. Having lost our frank fear of death along with our faith in an afterlife, we all have taken our fear of pain as a feeble alternative. Our regret, too, is magnified. When he was in discomfort, I stuttered a very great deal, but when he was not, when he was simply reminiscing or watching TV and talking to me, I stuttered scarcely a bit. Then, as he was actually dying, during our last interview, he turned on the bed and asked me something. My answer was blocked in my mouth and his face went rigid with more pain than mine — that my infirmity was still there unhealed. He was startled because in the exigencies of dying he had forgotten. He straightened, shutting his eyes, not wanting to end his life seeing it.

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Nevertheless, he’d often told me that it was my problems he loved me for rather than my successes and sleekness. He loved my sister for being waiflike and my mother for being on occasion afraid she was mentally ill. We were quite hardy while the months passed. Mother and he lay side by side on the bed clasping hands. Until nearly the end, because of the pills, he was not suffering pain of the magnitude he had dreaded. The last couple days it was a tossing and pitching, horrific pain, but the body more than the mind was responding — the body attempting to swallow its tongue. What I remember, therefore, of death’s salutation to him was that death came as a tickler, making his withered body twitch, touching him here, touching him there, wasting his tissues away like a white wax, while his head on the headrest above looked down and watched, or he’d shoot an acute glance at me from out of the hunching amalgam of pricks, jactitation, and drug-induced torpor. Death tickled him in a gradual crescendo, taking its time, and with his ironic attorney’s mind, he was amused. His two satisfactions were that he was privy to its most intimate preparations, everything just-so and fussy, and that at last the long spiky battling within the family was over and done. The new summer blossomed. In mid-June I saw what is meant by “a widow’s tears.” They flow in a flood of tremulous vulnerability, so that one thinks they will never stop.

Most severe on the physiologists’ scale of pain is that of childbirth. It’s also the worst that I’ve seen. A year had gone by since I’d left the army and quit visiting my Philadelphia friend. She came to New York, looked me up, discovered me vomiting, thin as a rail because of girl trouble, and moved in with me on the Upper West Side, spooning in food and mothering me. Then about the time I had perked up, she was able to confirm that she had got pregnant by a chap back in Philadelphia.

We drew out our savings and started for San Francisco, that vainglorious, clam-colored city. In her yellow convertible, with my English setter and her cocker spaniel, we drove through the South and through Texas, taking Highway 80 because it was the cold part of autumn. In Mississippi I remember whenever I shouted at one of the dogs, if he was slow peeing, any Negro who happened to be close about would turn to see what I wanted, quite naturally, as if I had called. It was a grueling trip. I’d begun vomiting again after she’d told me that she was pregnant, and she was suffering mysterious pains in that region between her legs, which no druggist would touch with a telephone pole. But we reached Russian Hill and established ourselves in one of the local apartment hotels. For a while during the seven-month wait the arrangement didn’t work out and she moved to a Florence Crittenton home and I went to the beach, but we ended the period together. At six one morning I drove her up to a whelk-pink hospital on a breezy hill and sat in the labor room for eight hours, watching the blue grid of stretch marks on her anguished stomach — medieval pain. She jolted and heaved and screamed, squeezing my hand, sucking gas from a cup and falling asleep between the throes. I needed three days to stop shaking, though it was a normal delivery throughout and she, by the mental safety catch which women have, had blocked off most of the memory by the time she was wheeled to her room, asleep. I’m ashamed to say that I’d spanked her a little the night before, and I never spanked her again.

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The contract she’d signed obliged my friend to relinquish the baby girl to the Home for three weeks, after which she could appropriate her completely as her own. I was privileged to keep her breasts flowing during those weeks, a luxury that would have been fitting for Zeus, and to the astonishment of the Home, as soon as the interval expired we showed up for the child. They wondered whether we were kidnappers, this was so rare. Then we drove East. The baby acquired a father before she was out of her infancy, and is now about ten.

So pain is a packet of chiseling tools. Women in labor make no bones about protesting its severity. Neither does a dying man once he has stopped lingering with the living — thinking of the memories of his behavior which he is leaving for his children, for instance. It’s when we have no imperative purpose in front of our sufferings that we think about “bearing up”; “bearing up” is converted to serve as a purpose. Pain, love, boredom and glee and anticipation or anxiety — these are the pilings we build our lives from. In love we beget more love and in pain we beget more pain. Since we must like it or lump it, we like it. And why not, indeed? ❖

1968 personal memoir in the Village Voice about stuttering

1968 personal memoir in the Village Voice about stuttering

1968 personal memoir in the Village Voice about stuttering


Close Rikers In Under 10 Years? It Can Be Done

In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that “New York City will close the Rikers Island jail facility” in ten years, well after his potential second term. Presenting his 2018 executive budget a month later, he repeated his commitment to a decade-long timetable: “I don’t think we can go faster. If we found a way, we would love to.”

The driving force behind the effort to close Rikers is a report from the Lippman Commission, an independent, blue-ribbon panel of experts named after the former chief judge of New York. “Given Rikers’s location and history — and the persistent culture of violence and loss of humanity inherent in a system that is based on isolation — rebuilding on the Island is not an option,” the report stated. The Lippman Commission proposal involves opening new jails across the five boroughs; the ten-year timeline reflects the political and logistical concerns that make “building jails in New York City…a difficult task.”

But while many agree on the need to close down Rikers — a collection of ten facilities (one so decrepit it hasn’t been used since 2000) on a 400-acre island in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx — not everyone believes it should take a decade. Martin F. Horn, who was commissioner of the New York City

Department of Correction from 2003 to 2009, says Rikers must be closed sooner rather than later. In an editorial in the Daily News last month, Horn wrote that real changes must start “now”: “The men and women who work in our city’s jails and those confined there are our fellow New Yorkers, and they cannot wait 10 long years.”

Another critic is Glenn Martin, a member of the Lippman Commission. “National progressive leaders don’t spend ten years closing down torture islands,” Martin told the Voice. “They act swiftly and decisively, in order to save lives.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo also believes the jails should be closed more quickly. “Rikers Island is an abomination. And don’t tell me it’s gonna take ten years to fix that abomination,” Cuomo said in April. “Because when you want to do something, you do it.”

Cuomo, of course, is engaged in a longstanding feud with de Blasio (Martin called Cuomo’s criticism “grandstanding”). Yet if Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio were able to set aside their differences and collaborate on a solution — today — Rikers Island could be closed sooner. After speaking with experts about possible solutions and their feasibility, the Voice believes it could happen in five years.

Mayor de Blasio speaks inside the "Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit" on Rikers Island in March of 2015.
Mayor de Blasio speaks inside the “Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit” on Rikers Island in March of 2015.

Doing so would take a combination of criminal justice reform measures that would reduce the city’s total jail population to below 6,000, as well as an aggressive construction effort to build four new borough jails by 2022.

Closing Rikers begins with legislative action that reforms New York State’s criminal justice system so that fewer people are jailed in the first place. Chief among these is the elimination of cash bail. The Lippman report found that on any given day, three-quarters of the roughly 9,700 people held in the city’s jails are awaiting the outcome of their case because they cannot afford to post bail. “A person’s freedom should not be determined by what’s in his or her wallet,” the report states.

The second measure required is the elimination of loopholes in the state’s speedy-trial statute that currently allow prosecutors to stop the clock by simply declaring their readiness for trial. Despite efforts by New York’s judiciary to reduce delay, inordinate slowdowns continue, and only legislative action can fix this problem once and for all.

According to the Lippman report, these reforms, and others, if fully implemented, would reduce the number of people arrested and jailed annually in New York City by roughly one-third — from 11,400 inmates to 7,166.

Alongside that legislative push, the city would have to immediately demolish and rebuild its existing borough jails in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan and then, in the existing jails’ footprint, build three new facilities.

In its 2018 budget, announced in April, the city allocated $1.1 billion “for the design and construction of new jail facilities.” The city should take that money and immediately retain an architectural design firm with experience building jails in urban environments, tasking it with formulating plans for the new borough jails in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. In the meantime, the demolition of the existing jails can begin.

The size of the new jails is significant. The Lippman Commission recommends a 5,500-bed total capacity city jail system. Horn, the former jail chief, told the Voice that jails housing 800 inmates would be ideal but were likely too small to be economically efficient. “I think 2,000 is the absolute maximum,” Horn said. “There is no ‘ideal’ number above 800 to 1,000, but I think 1,600 would be manageable.” Experts suggest one jail in each borough might be the only realistic approach, and might limit the scope of potential community opposition to the plan.

Horn also suggested that it was necessary to appoint a close-Rikers czar.

“Nobody owns the responsibility to get it done,” Horn said. “Until someone takes ownership of getting it done and has the authority to do so, it will always be in the future. Same as to bail reform. Not only will it take legislative change, and who will champion and advance the legislation?”

As for the construction of new jail facilities, it can actually be done “pretty expeditiously,” according to Dr. Michael P. Jacobson, member of the Lippman Commission and executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance: “From the day you have ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] approval and final design, the construction itself can take approximately two to three years.”

The ULURP process is distinct from, but related to, the city’s environmental review process, which also must be cleared. The ULURP process itself runs on a seven-month timeline, but getting to the point of having a ULURP-ready plan can itself take years. Five years would allow two years to do so, and accommodate Jacobson’s two-to-three-year window for construction.

In the Bronx, the city will have to build an entirely new jail, where one never was.

Previously, the Bronx House of Detention was located on land just south of Yankee Stadium. That jail closed in 2000, and the city transferred control of the land to the Related Companies, which tore down the jail and replaced it with a mall. Currently, 800 city inmates, mostly from the Bronx, are held on the city’s prison barge in Hunts Point, known as “the boat.”

While the city no longer controls the land the original Bronx House stood on, it does control a parcel directly behind the Bronx County courthouse, perfectly situated for construction of a jail because it will allow direct access to the courthouse — as will the city’s jails in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. This would reduce transportation costs and reduce the risk of a prisoner escaping in transit.

That parcel of land is currently occupied by a city school, the Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice. The school should be razed and a new borough jail built in its place. While the city will have to go through the full ULURP process, says Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer and expert in the New York City land use process, the fact that the city already owns the land will shave years off the process, because eminent domain will not have to be invoked.

“This is a very good idea,” Siegel added.

The Vernon Bain Correctional Center, a floating prison barge off the Bronx also known as "The Boat."
The Vernon Bain Correctional Center, a floating prison barge off the Bronx also known as “The Boat.”

That leaves Staten Island, which is the stickiest part of closing Rikers, since the borough’s political leaders are resolutely opposed to housing their inmates in their own borough. That problem isn’t insurmountable, though.

Once a borough jail is built in the Bronx, the city can move the jail barge currently housing the Bronx’s prisoners to Staten Island. Moving the jail barge to Staten Island can be accomplished via mayoral decree, even over local opposition. Every other county in the state bears the burden of housing its own detainees, and no special exception should be made for Staten Island.

This is hardly an optimal solution, as conditions of confinement on the barge are nearly as inhumane as on Rikers, but it is not meant to be. Staten Island’s recalcitrant leaders should be forced into reconsidering their opposition to a new jail once they are faced with the reality that City Hall can and will impose the jail barge on them, as City Hall imposed it on the Bronx.

This brings us to sentenced city prisoners.

Under New York law, anyone convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to jail time serves that time in a facility administered by the county, not the state. According to the Lippman report, approximately 1,300 people are serving misdemeanor jail sentences at any time in the city jail system, mostly on Rikers. The city should build a new penitentiary for city prisoners serving misdemeanor sentences, and it should build it off of Rikers Island, either on city-owned or state-owned land within the city, or upstate on city-owned or state-owned land.

Here, again, is where Governor Cuomo can help close Rikers. Currently, New York State has eleven former prisons for sale in upstate New York, including the former Mount McGregor medium-security correctional facility. The former Summit Correctional Facility, in the Catskills, is also available.

Incarcerating sentenced city prisoners in a refurbished state facility upstate would bring the city’s jail population down to fewer than 6,000 — meaning that, combined with the 800-bed jail barge and anticipated continued reductions in crime, the city’s four new borough jails need not be bigger than roughly 1,500, and Rikers can close as soon as the last new borough jail is completed.

The cost of this plan is roughly the same as the Lippman report’s figure — $11 billion — which could be largely offset by the state’s purchase or lease of Rikers for an expansion of LaGuardia Airport. A legal locking mechanism could even be built into the contract between the city and the state that would preclude either de Blasio’s or Cuomo’s successors from aborting or altering the plan.

If there’s any issue that could unite Cuomo and de Blasio, it’s closing Rikers, according to New York’s former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, chairman of the commission.

“The proposed closure of Rikers represents a rare instance when our political leaders are aligned,” Lippman told the Voice. “As we move from planning to action, we will need courageous political leadership more than ever to make the hard decisions and stay the course.”


Mark Zuckerberg Doesn’t Understand Diversity

On Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stopped by North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black school, as part of his 50-state tour. Zuckerberg responded to students’ questions on technology, politics, and every Silicon Valley company’s most glaring liability: diversity.

For college students, getting a whiff of Zuckerberg’s entrepreneurial spirit must be inspiring; he’s a 32-year-old billionaire who sprung to success during those same formative years (full disclosure: I worked for Facebook’s editorial department for several months in 2015 and 2016). Yet the image of Zuckerberg in his plain grey t-shirt centered in a room full of Black students is more risible than riveting.

At Apple, 7 percent of its tech workers are Black. That’s an abysmally low number, yet compared to Microsoft’s 2.4 percent, it seems progressive. But Facebook’s staff diversity pales in comparison (pun intended) to its tech peers.

At Facebook, white employees comprise 51 percent of Facebook’s tech workers, while 43 percent are Asian, and about 1 percent are Black.

These figures have for the most part remained stagnant since the companies began releasing diversity reports semi-annually since 2014. Progress has been slow and Facebook is lagging.

Zuckerberg mentioned he’s implemented new training techniques to quell biases in his hiring processes. Still, there are absolutely no people of color holding a management position or seat on the board at Facebook. So how does an all-white board of directors solve a diversity problem?

“We do this really rigorous training for every manager at Facebook where you have to go through and understand what your unconscious biases are,” Zuckerberg explained.

That’s a start, but it takes more than few training sessions to unlearn centuries-long lessons of heavily engrained systematic oppression.

“There’s way more demand for engineers than there are engineers,” Zuckerberg told the students, adding that there were more than enough jobs in tech for underrepresented groups. That’s not entirely true. Research suggests that there actually isn’t a shortage of engineers, and when it comes to Black college graduates specifically, they make up for only 2 percent of the Silicon Valley workforce.

There’s privilege in Zuckerberg’s power; his whiteness, his maleness, and his not-so-humble upbringing that positioned him amongst the majority who look just like him and go on to rise to the ranks in tech at exceedingly higher rates.

When delving into these kinds of unconscious biases managers at Facebook may have during the hiring process, Zuckerberg said, “a lot of people who think they care about diversity actually still have a lot of these biases…it’s often people who think they’re doing the best who are doing the worst.”

Zuckerberg went on to use Facebook board member Peter Thiel as an example of how to diversify viewpoints.

This is the same Peter Thiel who co-wrote The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus, an attack on affirmative action, and who pledged to contribute $1.25 million to Trump’s xenophobic, sexist, anti-immigration presidential campaign.

“I personally believe that if you want to have a company that is committed to diversity, you need to be committed to all kinds of diversity, including ideological diversity,” he said. “I think the folks who are saying we shouldn’t have someone on our board because they’re a Republican, I think that’s crazy.”

Zuckerberg also seems to be conflating ideological political differences with actually hiring skilled, underrepresented peoples. The lecture presented the task of solving corporate diversity issues as this complex riddle when the answer is clear: hire people who aren’t white men and cultivate spaces for them to rise in ranks. Then, hire more people who aren’t white men.

Having Zuckerberg act as an authority figure on diversity in front of a room full of people who are affronted with the reality of these issues is the antithesis of what pushing for diversity should mean. Whether Zuckerberg’s lecture was well-intentioned or not doesn’t matter. If he’s amplifying his own voice over that of the very marginalized people he seeks to be more inclusive of, then something’s wrong. When diversity calls, let the silenced speak. Know when to pass the mic.

One student asked Zuckerberg, “What advice would you give to us as minorities to strategically navigate the entrepreneurial world so that we can be included?”

His response: “Frankly, I think that that’s our problem to figure out.”


Women Of NYC: You Don’t Have To Put Up With This Crap

If you’re a woman in New York City, it’s not a matter of if someone has grabbed your ass on the subway before, it’s what you’ve done after it’s happened.

This was the question posed by Ebba Boye, an Economics Ph.D candidate at the New School who has spent the last decade moonlighting as a self-defense instructor. On Wednesday — International Women’s Day, which coincided with the women’s strike — Boye set aside her thesis to offer a group of around ten women a crash course on protecting ourselves from unwanted intrusions. By the time we walked back into the unseasonably lovely afternoon two hours later, we were versed in how to position our knuckles for the most effective throat jab, where to grab at attacker’s hips in order to knee them in the groin, and that gathering your fingers to resemble a duck’s beak is optimal for truly destructive eye-gouging.

But first, we had to think about the subway.

As the late-morning light filtered through the huge windows of the Theresa Lang Community Center, Boye instructed us to arrange ourselves in three groups, according to our response to a handsy train cretin. One group for those who’d done nothing, another if we’d moved away from the groper, but said nothing. And a third for those who had spoken up. All but two of us — myself included — clustered in the “move away” group, looking with a mixture of curiosity and envy at the two who challenged their attackers.

“I guess I’m just confrontational,” one woman, dressed in a red t-shirt, explained with a shrug. The other nodded.

The gulf between our two groups seemed cavernous, and I was surprised at how easy it was to categorize myself as someone who would (and has) crept silently away. More disturbing were my internal rationalizations, which sounded foreign and pathetic as they coalesced in my head: What if everyone thought it was my fault? What would they think if I made a scene? Who was this spineless nincompoop? I wondered in horror. Is that…my voice?

It is my voice, and by all accounts, it’s also a product of my upbringing. Gentleness and sensitivity are the cornerstones of femininity, and women are taught from an early age that it’s unladylike to cause a scene or draw undue attention to ourselves. Physically, we’re trained to shrink. While boys are encouraged to play sports and roughhouse, girls are taught that they’re prone to shattering if bumped. These lines are drawn early: studies show that parents consistently encourage gender-stereotyped activities among young children, and are more likely to provide toys like action figures and sports equipment for their sons, while their daughters get dolls and dress-up clothes. It’s no wonder that girls sometimes grow into women reluctant to stand their ground — so few of us were given the tools to do it.

“We all have the strength in our bodies,” Boye explained, adding that the goal of the class isn’t so much to morph into savage, man-shredding cage fighters as it is to become acquainted with our own power. “Too many women have been told throughout their lives that they aren’t strong enough, that they can’t defend themselves, that their role is to cry, to scream out for help.”

After all, sexual harassment isn’t usually about sex, but dominance. “Sexual harassment is a subtle rape, and rape is more about fear than sex,” Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, told the New York Times in 1991, in the midst of Anita Hill’s accusations against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “Harassment is a way for a man to make a woman vulnerable.” Only around 25 percent of sexual harassment cases are inept attempts at seduction— the rest are assertions of power.

That it’s incumbent on women to sacrifice time and money in the interest of simply functioning comfortably is obviously bullshit. But that anger can be useful when harnessed and redirected at the source of our discomfort, be it someone on the subway, at a bar or, more commonly, at a friend or colleague.

As Ann J. Cahill, the author of Rethinking Rape, wrote in a 2015 blog post, sexual violence is often framed as a problem of women’s bodies — we shouldn’t have been walking alone, or been somewhere at a certain time. “It’s as if when those bodies are in the wrong places, or do the wrong things, suddenly this threat materializes out of thin air. And really, that feminine body should have known better than to cause that threat to show up,” she said.

Feminist self-defense, then, teaches women how to move; what Cahill calls “muscular pedagogy.”

“And these new habits – the ability to kick, or to yell, or to become familiar with the sensation of feeling one’s fist meet someone else’s body with force — contradict what women are usually told about what their body can do and be,” she writes.

Boye, who is Norwegian, quickly dispelled the idea that it’s necessary to be nice at the expense of ourselves. She spoke frankly and unflinchingly about the points of weakness on a man’s body: How easy it is to blow out a kneecap, to thrust a knee into a groin, to find the soft, vulnerable part of a throat. Though we practiced throwing punches and lightly jabbing each other’s necks (it hurts!), Boye pointed out that in most cases, physical reprisal isn’t required, though a strong “No!” or “Stop!” frequently is.

To that end, we partnered up. When I pictured a self-defense class, I’d envisioned some sort of Rocky-esque training montage, with sweatbands and maybe a speedbag. So when Boye announced that we’d be shoulder-checking our partners before whipping around and glaring at them over our shoulders, I tittered nervously. Surely she wasn’t serious?

She was. My partner was a college student, her black hair bound in a ponytail with a ring of smoky eyeliner framing her eyes. On our first attempt at smashing into each other, I felt myself jerk away, afraid of…what? Hurting her? Being rude? I swallowed my instinct to apologize. “You can do it harder,” she said pleasantly.

And so I did. I found that committing more to the shoulder check made it hurt less than when I winced away, and I was reminded of the years I spent playing soccer, where you are far more likely to get injured if you hesitate than if you confront your opponent at full speed.

These exercises — and there were others, including a full body slam (!) and practicing shouting “NO” — were not intended for practical use, per se, as much as creating awareness of our own fortitude. That we could make noise. That we could hit. I watched my partner brutally attack a kicking bag, encouraged by Boye’s enthusiasm. “NICE!” she shouted in what sounded like genuine delight as my partner’s foot landed an especially powerful blow.

Ideally, Boye said, such training would be taught in public schools, vanquishing the idea of female weakness before it really gets the chance to take hold. Imagine a world where “no” was never construed as coquetry, no matter its inflection. Imagine the trouble it would save everyone — men and women alike — if the word itself held its own power, without the now requisite firmness of tone, the sustained eye contact, the hand extended in warning.

If nothing else, Boye said, remember that it’s okay to freeze up, to do nothing. “Don’t spend all your energy being mad at yourself for what you didn’t do,” she said. “It’s the asshole attacker who has done something unforgivable, and you should be pissed at that person, not at yourself.”


I Don’t Trust “Real Democrats,” And Neither Should You

With Donald Trump in the White House and ICE agents lurking around New York City courthouses gearing up for body-snatching season, this might be a good moment to reflect on how we got here.

I got here when my pregnant mom rode into this country in the trunk of a car. A Colombian-born social worker who worked with Bolivian miners during a brutal dictatorship, she, like many others, wanted a better life. She came up through Central America until she paid “coyote” smugglers a few thousand dollars in exchange for the American dream. A few months later, she brought me to New York.

The first time I was stopped by a cop I was 12 years old. A few of us got patted down behind a basketball court. No one asked why. It’s part of life when you’re Black or Latino in New York.

As we got older, my friends and I started getting caught with nickel bags of weed. The stakes got higher (pardon the pun). When I was 19, a cop wrote me a $50 summons after I spit in the subway. He kept me there for 20 minutes, making me late for my soul-sucking, minimum wage job at CVS.

For my mom, who went from a professional career to cleaning houses in Manhattan, her constant fear was that immigration agents would kick in the door, Biggie-style. She was looking over her shoulder for ICE while I was looking over my shoulder for the NYPD.

In 1994, the year of that first stop, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani rolled out Broken Windows. Vendors, squeegee men and the homeless got hit hardest. Giuliani, a Republican, was helped by an infusion of extra cops thanks to the Safe City Safe Streets program of his Democratic predecessor, David Dinkins. Nationally, a Democratic majority in congress pushed the 1994 Crime Bill to the desk of President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who signed it into law.

In college, I read about the Broken Windows theory of policing. It made a ton of sense: I was the broken window, and cops were going to keep breaking me forever.

The policy brought cops down on our necks for every transgression or sign of “disorder,” hitting us with arrests and court dates. The ’94 crime bill added thousands of cops and prisons across America as the Clintons talked about “super-predators” and both sides of the aisle cheered.

Republicans and Democrats built the police state.

In 2014, Bill de Blasio, our first Democratic mayor since Dinkins, brought back Bratton and re-embraced Broken Windows. We protested, of course, confronting local politicians, all Democrats.

When Eric Garner was killed by a Staten Island cop, groups started organizing, in part, to end Broken Windows. We crashed Mayor de Blasio’s fundraisers and shut down the City Council in 2016 when they thought it was a good idea to add nearly 1,300 cops to the NYPD. Those extra cops, particularly the new anti-protest Strategic Response Group, now harass protesters who consistently honor the lives of those who’ve been killed by the police.

We’ve been at war with these Democrats for a few years. So when another group of protesters showed up outside a forum on Broken Windows this month to protest a Brooklyn State Senator, Jesse Hamilton, to tell him to get in line with establishment Democrats in Albany, you can imagine how hard my palm hit my face. The protesters, most of whom, though not all, were white, say a breakaway group of Democrats, known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), should realign with the party. Hamilton is one of them.

Anti-IDC protesters outside Brooklyn State Senator Jesse Hamilton's meeting <a href="/news/brooklyn-state-senators-broken-windows-meeting-hijacked-by-angry-protesters-we-dont-want-fake-democrats-9688638" target="_blank">in Sunset Park last week</a>.
Anti-IDC protesters outside Brooklyn State Senator Jesse Hamilton’s meeting in Sunset Park last week.

Let me just say that I don’t know Hamilton. Apparently, he’s taken on a position against Broken Windows, maybe to deflect from the criticism being thrown his way. I could be cynical about that, but I was much more annoyed with these protesters.

Everyone wants to be part of “the resistance” in the Trump era. Everyone’s a protester, even the mayor of New York City. The Democratic machine has the most to gain as they rebrand themselves. However, the fact that deportations had already been happening in our oh-so-liberal town under deporter-in-chief Barack Obama gets ignored. Similarly, the risks that constant police contact through Broken Windows imposes on immigrants is only now, under Trump, slowly being acknowledged.

And yet it seems no one wants to come to grips with the Democrats’ role in how we got here. So when this “No-IDC” mosh pit of liberal self-righteousness throws a tantrum because Democrats won’t act like “real” Democrats, I gotta ask: who are the “real” Democrats? De Blasio, the self proclaimed progressive standard-bearer of big city mayors? Hillary Clinton?

Are they Brooklyn Councilmember Carlos Menchaca and Daniel Dromm in Queens? Dromm is leading some of the anti-IDC rallies in Jackson Heights and Menchaca is egging on the protesters in Sunset Park. They seem to be a significant part (dare I say “source”) of the anti-IDC rallies. Has anyone taken these two Democrats to task for voting for the extra cops last year and for supporting the mayor’s developer-friendly “affordable housing” scheme? For acting like, well, establishment sellout Democrats? Did any of the protesters know, or care, when Menchaca gave an award to one of Sunset Park’s most notorious cops?

Perhaps local Democrats are using the IDC drama to deflect from the fact that they have no answers for Broken Windows or that the IDNYC municipal identification program they voted for might actually help the federal government find and deport New Yorkers?

When IDC member and State Senator Jose Peralta, the focus of the rallies in Queens, was clamoring for the city and NYPD to clean up Roosevelt Avenue from the “dangerous characters” (code for Broken Windows enforcement) before he joined the IDC, did anyone care?

But it’s easier to play Democrats vs. Republicans than it is to tackle policing or gentrification. When you get down to it, quality-of-life policing and displacement benefits urban white liberals most of all.

A cop sweeps away that homeless person so that Sara can get from her loft to Starbucks undisturbed. The plainclothes officer will arrest that Black kid dancing on the train because what’s perfectly normal for some of us (b-boy-ing, selling loosies, loud music) is a nuisance to some of our more affluent neighbors. A rowdy Salsa block party in Williamsburg 20 years ago would’ve been perfectly normal. Today, it’s a 911 or 311 call waiting to happen.

Since their protest in Brooklyn, some anti-IDC protesters, perhaps sensing their privilege, have tried to straddle both sides. They say they can be against Broken Windows and also pressure rascally rebellious lawmakers to go back to being loyal Democrats. A Democratically-controlled Albany, they say, could pass the DREAM act or create more “Sanctuary Cities”, which are obviously so effective at protecting us. When Democrats are in power, the argument goes, they can pass bills that help us people of color.

Yeah, tell me how the Democratic party, the graveyard of social movements, will save me. Give me a break. The flavor of the IDC isn’t new. Whether you rail against the IDC or “blue dog” Democrats in Congress, striving for political order is just another example of liberals wanting to play fair.

If well-meaning white people want to help us, start by turning off MSNBC and grabbing a MetroCard to swipe in poor people so that we don’t get busted for fare-evasion, the top Broken Windows arrest. Take action. De Blasio says he can’t afford a subsidized-fare program for the poor, yet he and the council found the money for more cops.

Better yet, let’s have our white allies stage some protests at the ICE processing center on Varick street. Make a human wall. Shut it down. Wiggle those fingers, Occupy-style. Do whatever you want. Just don’t talk to me about “real” Democrats. We’re at war with both parties, the “real” Democrats included. People are being displaced and criminalized all around you. Keep your eyes on what matters.

Josmar Trujillo is an activist and writer based in Spanish Harlem. He organizes with the Coalition to End Broken Windows.


Once, the U.S. Fought to Take In Refugees Like Me

Six or seven years after my parents and I arrived as refugees from the Soviet Union — I was about twelve years old, so it would have been the early 1980s — my father received a letter from a close friend, asking for the manual to a U.S.-made minicomputer. The friend had clearly been put up to it, given a less-than-kind nudge by the KGB, or perhaps his boss. I recall that unanswered letter as the breaking of one of the last active links we had to Russia.

It’s likely that other immigrants from Russia received similar letters. For the overwhelming majority of Russian Jewish refugees like us, fleeing religious and political persecution, the reaction would have been the same. It is hard to imagine any of them jeopardizing the life they were building here to help a regime that hated them. The U.S., as a matter of policy, had made clear that we were unequivocally accepted in this country — that our presence here was not only a favor, but an advantage to the United States.

Julia Ioffe has written eloquently about what Russian Jews faced in the Soviet Union, the sacrifices they made to leave their former lives behind, and the gratitude they felt to be accepted here. I will second all that. My parents took enormous risks in choosing to come to the United States in 1976, not least that they would not be allowed out, would lose their jobs, be followed by the KGB, and be left for years in “refusenik” limbo. They took great risks, and they also felt great hope and relief, largely on my behalf.

Despite this hope, the position of Russian Jews in America, like that of all refugees, was fraught. Governments want guarantees that there will be no traitors mixed in, and many people — then and now — look at the whole lot with suspicion. Richard Nixon had no use for refugees (or for Jews in general, but that’s another matter). In the Reagan era the very same Russian Jews who were welcomed across the border were later, like my father, denied security clearances to work in the burgeoning defense economy. Certainly even then plenty of Americans saw refugees as a potential fifth column in the war with communism.

Still the United States let us in, thanks to a mixture of humanitarian and geopolitical motives that were closely entwined. One of the peculiarities of the Soviet regime that it was that it was impossible to leave the Soviet bloc. Citizens of the Soviet Union were captives. To get abroad it was not enough merely to gain entry somewhere else; it required gaining the government’s permission to leave. For most of two decades, the United States ceaselessly pummeled the Soviet Union to grant Jews that right of exit.

Perhaps not all the methods the United States used were effective. The Soviets sometimes seem to have cut immigration in response to pressure. On balance, though, the United States rescued hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union, and — this is key — in doing so reminded the world that the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc states were countries people wanted to leave but couldn’t, while the United States was a country they wanted to come to. The Russian Jewish refugees of the 1970s and 1980s were living evidence of the moral superiority of the United States.

Over the past months I had wondered how Donald Trump could so carelessly jeopardize the moral standing that had been a touchstone of American foreign policy for decades. In the last days, though, as refugees got turned away at the border and green card holders found themselves terrified to leave the country lest they not be allowed back, it finally occurred to me that the administration was not just carelessly throwing away the advantages of U.S. moral superiority. The baroque cruelties of the new immigration policy are a sign that the administration is intentionally abandoning the special position of the United States.

It’s a strong charge. But the harshest interpretation of the ban, upending the lives of permanent residents, was pushed by the president’s political advisor, Stephen Bannon, with clear insight into how it would be received. This was not merely carelessness, it was a message to immigrants, to potential immigrants, and to everyone else who looked to the United States for guidance.

The message is: You have been a burden. You are on your own. Solve your own problems. That signal is very much in tune with the slogan ‘America First,’ taken from an isolationist movement that was infected with antisemitism in a period when many Americans were ready to condemn German Jews to the concentration camps.

The U.S. demanded a great deal of the refugees it let in, and sometimes viewed them (meaning: us) with suspicion. We knew that we were here thanks to the generosity of most Americans, and despite the misgivings of some. Ultimately the U.S. got something valuable back: Letting in Russian Jews like me and my parents told the world that those who lived under repressive regimes should look to the United States for leadership. It was a key feature of the U.S. brand, a reason for the world to choose us over our enemies.

Now Trump and his advisers have decided it’s not worth paying for the upkeep of that brand, calculating that there is no percentage in looking like the good guy. As you let that sink in, it starts to feel like showing up at the airport and being told that you won’t be allowed on your plane. At first it seems like it has to be the result of some confusion that will soon be cleared up. And then you start to understand no, it’s not a misunderstanding at all. It’s what half the country voted for.


You Wrote, You Got Paid: Hentoff Treated All Work — And Those Around Him — With the Same Glorious Regard

When I first came to work at the Village Voice in 1977 (almost forty years now, to the day) I never wanted to fully acknowledge the illustrious company I suddenly found myself keeping. How cool would that have been, hyperventilating in the elevator at 80 University Place just because I was sharing a masthead with the people I’d come of age reading: Jack Newfield, Alexander Cockburn, Robert Christgau, Richard Goldstein, Andrew Sarris. Andrew Sarris! How would I have known the greatness of Douglas Sirk without Andrew Sarris?

After a while, however, you acclimate. Here you are. In this club. The idea that Jack Newfield, muckraker, asskicker in the mold of Jacob Riis is not only talking to you but actually appears to value what you might have to say. That this is a more or less normal, day-to-day occurrence. Well, you just have to take that in stride. Not plotz every time it happens. But Nat. Nat was a different story.

Nat, as welcoming as he could be, existed on another plane. Was it because he wrote the liner notes for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was it because he had those signed pictures of Mingus and Lenny Bruce in his house? Was it because he never quite seemed part of the crowd? (Was that the Boston thing, a bit of mysterioso amid those working-class New Yorkers?) Was it the pipe? The air of distraction, the way you’d see him on the street, rubbing the dog crap off the bottom of his shoe without once looking up from the paper he was reading? Who knew? But if he said Lucky Thompson could really play you knew you better go get five Lucky Thompson records. If Nat asked about it later and you had to admit you weren’t really sure about Lucky Thompson, he wouldn’t argue, just faintly smile, like it takes all kinds.

Once Nat told me that no writer, especially someone whose work appeared on newsprint, should ever get a swelled head. It was all what used to be called piece work. You wrote, you got paid, if you wanted to keep getting paid, you kept writing. If it was a column about the First Amendment, a children’s book, a New Yorker piece, or the back of an Art Farmer record, the same rules applied. But I never quite got it until I noticed that Nat had written the back of the menu at Lundy’s, the massive, now long closed, seafood restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, where once upon a time a bowl of the best clam chowder went for 95 cents.

I can’t exactly remember the story but it had something to do with Bob Thiele, who produced dozens of great records for Impulse, stuff with Coltrane, Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and most every other genius to come down the pike. Nat wrote many of those liner notes. Thiele was from Sheepshead Bay. He knew old man Lundy and told him that a great restaurant needed a menu with some literary class. So Nat wrote that too. It was piece work, glorious piece work.


The Voice of the Voice: Nat Hentoff, 1925–2017

Before age and health caused him to hole up in his West 12th Street apartment in the past few years, you could often spot Nat Hentoff trudging the Village streets, toting a huge, Santa-size sack of books and periodicals. He’d be headed home from his impossibly cluttered closet of an office wherever the Voice was then camped. Or else he’d be on his way to Bradley’s, the old piano bar on University Place where he would perch on a stool to eat, read, talk — and talk. Among the many gifts that Hentoff bestowed on the newspaper where he labored for fifty years was his eagerness for discussion and debate. If this bow-shaped man, with a face like an Old Testament prophet, wasn’t pacing the Voice‘s halls with his latest column in hand, he was deep in conversation with whoever crossed his path. It didn’t matter if it was the paper’s youngest intern or an equally illustrious columnist — Hentoff would furrow his brow, pull on his beard, and listen. And then expound. And then listen again.

Hentoff, who died on January 7 at the age of 91, started writing for the Voice in 1958, shortly after the paper was launched. As he wrote in his last column as a staff writer, in 2009, “I wanted a place where I could write freely on anything I cared about.” Born in Boston on June 10, 1925, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was raised in a tough, left-leaning Roxbury neighborhood. As he described in his 1986 memoir, Boston Boy, at the age of twelve he publicly scarfed down a salami sandwich while seated on the family porch near a synagogue. He wanted to know what it felt like to be “an outcast,” he wrote. A devotee of jazz, he ran a local radio station for several years, then followed the music to New York, where he wrote for Down Beat and other publications.

Nat Hentoff will hopefully long be known for his prodigious writing. Books, columns, criticism — my God, the man wrote album liner notes for everyone from Bob Dylan to Miles Davis. But the secret to his craft was that he was a great listener, and gave his subjects the room to stretch out. My friend David Lewis, who made a marvelous documentary about Nat, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, pointed that out to me after he had waded deep into the mighty Hentoff archive: Jazz musicians loved Nat, Lewis reported, because he was the only critic who let them speak in their own voice.

For sure, there were grand explosions at the Voice between Nat and the rest of us over stances this contrarian would embrace. Abortion was the big one. Later it was Scalia, Iraq, Bush, mosques. Irascible in every way, he was perfectly capable of picking up the argument you’d had in the hallway in his column, blasting you in public for whatever wrongheaded opinion you’d voiced. He relished the debate, loved stoking the fire.

And yet no one was a stronger, more loyal colleague. One day, as my first tour as a Voice contributor was coming to an end in the 1980s, after the editors had failed to offer a staff writer slot and I headed to another weekly, Nat presented me with a sheaf of papers. It was a petition he’d circulated on my behalf, denouncing the editor for failing to give me the job. He’d never even told me he was doing it.

His motto was one he attributed to tenor great Ben Webster: “If the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself.” But despite his solo approach to journalism and politics, the notion of solidarity was a core issue for Nat. He played a key role in bringing the union to the Voice in the late Seventies after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. And the one person he scorned, refusing for years to talk to him, was a talented writer Nat believed had whispered union secrets to management back then. When the writer passed by, Nat would sneer, “Gypo Nolan!” It was a perfect Hentoffian slur, obscure enough that few understood his devastating reference to John Ford’s 1935 film The Informer.

It was at the Voice that Nat met Margot, also a writer, his wife of 58 years. She survives him, along with five children and ten grandchildren. His son Nick said he died at home of natural causes, surrounded by his family, listening to Billie Holiday sing.

His visits to the Voice offices were fewer and fewer in his last years at the paper, but his great, resonant voice rattling through the newsrooms always announced his presence. He spoke like he wrote, in measured sentences, offered with emphatic assuredness, always laced with a quotation from Duke Ellington or Louis Brandeis. And like the jazz musicians he adored, he could never resist breaking away from the melody to deliver some delightful echo of an earlier day. It was ever a pleasure and honor listening to Nat Hentoff being out of step.


The Bartender’s Dilemma: Empathy in the Age of Trump

The night after the election, a man came into my bar and ordered the strongest beer we had, an imperial stout. “What a fucked-up day,” he told me. The man had tears in his eyes. He tried to talk to the sparse groups of people spread out around the bar and was mostly ignored. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to talk to my friend,” one woman told him. The man grew more upset at the obvious discomfort he caused until he found a seat at the bar and talked to a pair of black women. I overhead him say that he was a Muslim American and that he was scared. Not long after, the man finished his beer and left. I checked in on the women.

“He didn’t want to be alone,” one of them said. “And I understand why.”

While he was trying to talk to the other people, my first reaction was to ask him to leave or, at the very least, to stop bothering my customers. Thinking back on it, my need to control this man was unsettling, and I knew why. Working as a bartender for the last six years, I’ve come to learn that vulnerability and empathy are two of the most valuable tools behind the bar. This was the part of the gig where I should’ve provided him a space to talk openly about what was bothering him.

I didn’t. I wish I had.

Instead, the two women at the bar did my job for me. They provided that man the space to be upset and process, understood him in a way that I couldn’t. I couldn’t see his despair at first. However much Trump’s win depressed and terrified me, as a white man I didn’t feel it as a personal, existential threat. Nor did I recognize the direct, immediate fear felt by my Latino and queer coworkers and by the customers I’ve befriended over the years.

In the last two months, I’ve questioned my effectiveness at work. The job has always required a healthy amount of patience and understanding. The first weeks after the election, I was overwhelmed by my distraught regulars who grimaced at their phones, enumerating the daily evolving horrors that were coming to define our reality. Was I qualified to support them? How could I serve others if I can’t be vulnerable enough to be honest with myself? How would I process the emotions of so many of my customers without hopping over the bar to start drinking along with them?

I have a feeling that bars and bartenders are going to be more important than ever in the coming years, and I don’t mean just for keeping us drunk through the Trump administration. Katie, a bartender friend of mine in the West Village, recently reminded me that the original concept of the tavern was meant to be a stop for the weary traveler, a kind of home away from home.

“It’s not just running a successful business, it’s fulfilling a human need to belong to someplace,” Katie said. “To be around others, to be part of a tribe.”

The real test comes when I serve people whose views differ from my own. The easiest thing to do is to not engage with them while stewing in the silence of my outrage. It has taken years to learn how to fight my own self-righteousness, to realize its impulse takes the focus off my customers, making it about me and not them. I’m not a Zen master and do, on occasion, get into arguments.

I have customers who support Trump. Luckily, they haven’t been arrogant. Most of them are older white men who remind me of the people I grew up around in the lily-white suburbs of New Jersey. One of my regulars I’ve known the longest, who refers to me as his nephew, recently said, “I voted for Trump because I’m an old man and I remember a time when I was comfortable, and I wanted to feel comfortable again.” I responded with some offhand remark about supporting racism, sexism, and xenophobia. “I don’t think I’m any of those things,” he replied.

My regular’s statement drew a reaction from me because it felt familiar and comfortable in ways I didn’t want it to. When I was a kid, the African Americans I knew best were the Cosbys, Middle Eastern people were on screen to be machine-gunned to death by Rambo, and LGBTQ people were depicted as one-dimensional caricatures of comic relief. My childhood insulation from the wider world, from the diversity of people, feelings, and ideas that make it up, is something I will spend the rest of my life struggling with and rebelling against.

After a few of these interactions with Trump supporters, I realized I was losing my ability to do my job well. I wasn’t listening anymore; I was reacting. Once I started listening to them and what they needed to say, they became less argumentative to my views when I shared them. By being vulnerable and checking my moral outrage, I was able to hear someone else. It won’t always be a voice I want in my head and it won’t always be easy to let it go. But that’s exactly why these sorts of conversations are important. Unlike the consequence-free, one-dimensional interactions on social media, talking to someone face-to-face inspires immediate results and the opportunity for empathy. Hearing another person’s voice, watching their pantomime, it changes the way I think and feel. It adds a desperately needed polyphony to my inner monologue.

Over the last month and a half, I’ve made it a point to try and stop entering my own self-designed, internet-bound echo chamber. I don’t want to be comfortable in the sameness of it. I want to be uncomfortable with everybody else. I know that by simply putting down my phone and talking to people that I would usually hate online won’t rescue Obamacare or reverse global warming, but it’s a necessary start to promote a safe and friendly environment for the people who enter the bar.

Every shift that I work I feels a little more hopeful. My regulars are still staring down at their phones, but at least they’ve started to smile a little as they do it. I am open about my own limitations as a person and barman. I feel lucky to work in this industry, to be a minor character in the stories of so many people’s lives. I am going to keep talking about these things, to real, live human beings. I will risk the vulnerability. A bartender creates and sustains a community. If I can conduct myself with empathy toward those I serve, perhaps some will accept it and take it out into the world with them. I believe there is hope and safety in this cold and often terrible world, and some of it just might reside at your corner bar.


Preventing Another Oakland Warehouse Tragedy Means Supporting Artists, Not Punishing Them

As the death toll rises from a devastating fire that tore through the Ghost Ship arts space in Oakland, California on Friday, opportunistic publications have begun spinning. Their assessments of the tragedy emphasize the illegal nature of the space, which was neither zoned for housing nor permitted to host events. The New York Times called it a “fire trap;” the Daily Mail, always searching for opportunities to sensationalize, called the space a “death trap” and a “commune”, describing the party as a “rave” — a term that’s nearly impossible to define.

To those outside this tight-knit scene, it may seem bizarre to attend a party in an unpermitted warehouse without sufficient exits or even a proper staircase. But understanding why spaces like Ghost Ship exist — and why they’re so important — is essential as we grapple with the future of grassroots arts spaces in the Bay Area, New York, and beyond.

The party Friday was a showcase for the Los Angeles-based electronic label 100% Silk, whose artists focus on updated versions of classic house music, the genre from which nearly everything we think of today as dance music has evolved. It began in Chicago at a utilitarian venue called The Warehouse, opened by the promoter Robert Williams in 1976. DJs like Frankie Knuckles used multiple turntables to piece together disco songs into a continuous, thumping beat. This style became known as “house music,” a name derived from the venue where it was born.

From the beginning, this new form of music was demonized and persecuted by authorities and the public. “Disco sucks” became a rallying cry among mainstream rock fans, who said they simply disliked the sound of the music but often actually hated it for being effeminate and flamboyant, and for its fans, who were in large part queer people of color. Even openly gay discos sometimes turned away black patrons.

The Warehouse, on the other hand, was based on inclusivity. “My fondest memory is the mixed crowd. Racially, ethnically, sexually. That was the best thing,” Frankie Knuckles told Resident Advisor in 2012. For these people, The Warehouse was a utopian escape where, for a few hours, all that mattered was the music.

In the intervening decades, electronic music has continued to be a uniting force for a variety of marginalized groups. As house gave birth to techno and other styles spiraled out from there, the parties for these genres have become known as raves — and are often the target of police and government harassment. The connection between dance music culture and drugs like MDMA allows authority figures to condemn the subculture as a gateway to drug use, leading to widespread efforts to make raving illegal.

In 1994, the UK’s Criminal Justice Act tried to shut down rave culture at its source, allowing police to break up any gathering of more than 1000 people with music “characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” More recently, in 2010, California lawmaker Fiona Ma reacted to the drug-related death of an underaged concertgoer at the corporate rave Electric Daisy Carnival by trying to ban raves and electronic dance music altogether, before realizing that the First Amendment also protects music. These and many more attempts to criminalize dance music has led to the ubiquity of illegal venues and pushed parts of the dance music scene further and further underground, while mainstream mega-festivals with tight security home in on the straight, white, male market and distance the popular conception of dance music from the genre’s queer, black roots.

Amidst this trend, the underground has continued to become increasingly vital as a place where marginalized groups — trans, gay, black, or otherwise — can feel safe being themselves. But such parties are thrown by artists and small-time promoters who rarely have the kind of capital required to open a legitimate venue. That means those put at risk by the unsafe conditions in these spaces are the very people who already face discrimination under the law.

The Ghost Ship space before Friday's fire
The Ghost Ship space before Friday’s fire

New York has long hosted parties like these, but over the last few years we’ve seen a transition play out: DIY venues like 285 Kent and Death By Audio, which were as ad hoc and permitless as Ghost Ship, have been replaced by legalized spaces such as the new incarnation of the Silent Barn and Trans-Pecos. Operators hope that by adhering to legal guidelines, they can retain the inclusivity of DIY spaces while creating something lasting.

What they’ve learned instead is that navigating the system without significant resources is incredibly difficult. Palisades, a Bushwick DIY venue that was opened legally in 2014, closed this year due to its failure to comply with building regulations. Market Hotel’s new, legal iteration was recently targeted by the police for warehousing alcohol without a permit in what venue promoter Todd P called a “gotcha” raid, which he suspected was intended to intimidate and perhaps even punish his organization. Market Hotel was only able to bring the space up to code in the first place because of a $100,000 grant — and they are still shut down while they await a new liquor license. If they can’t survive, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can.

The Bay Area has withstood similar pressures in recent years as economic inequality, like New York’s, has soared. California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has targeted many of the longest-running legally operated all ages venues with new regulations, pushing some much-loved spaces to the brink of closure. “Without these businesses, there’s no local music scene – it’s that simple,” San Francisco promoter Jordan Kurland told SFGate.

Oakland is now the country’s fourth most expensive rental market, and art communities like Ghost Ship’s are barely hanging on. Another local collective, LoBot, closed its doors in July after thirteen years of operation because their landlord doubled the rent. “Our fight isn’t just about losing a building, it’s about preserving the ability to raise underrepresented voices and offer a safer space to do it in,” LoBot’s Sabrina Sierra told the East Bay Express. In this desperate environment, where an entire scene risks losing spaces to gather, it doesn’t come as a surprise that collectives like Ghost Ship spring up — or that they can’t afford to invest in safety measures like sprinklers.

Unfortunately, this space seems to have been an anomaly even among arts collectives, whose leaders are usually concerned with safety even when official protocols are too expensive to follow. In a New York Times article, details about the master tenant, Derick Ion Almena, suggest he wasn’t particularly interested in tenant safety — one report describes a friend of his pulling a gun on residents. In the same report, a Ghost Ship tenant describes residents asking the landlord repeatedly for an upgrade to their electrical system, which was faulty enough that artists living in the space carried flashlights.

In the wake of this tragedy, it’s almost certain that laws will tighten and police will shut down more underground spaces, citing safety concerns. But this is a futile and counterproductive effort. When the government continually closes the few spaces that manage to make it through the labyrinth of bureaucracy to open legally, it provides young people few options but to take matters into their own hands by running illegal spaces. Young people who love music will always find a way: after nearly half a century of repression, dance music culture is arguably stronger and more diverse than ever.

Considering this, our governments and regulatory bodies should end their dangerous campaign to shut down venues and instead start working with promoters and fans to make arts spaces safe for everyone. Even better, treat the root cause of inequality: Aggressive rent control, higher wages, and widespread support for marginalized groups would take away some of the fuel that drives the creation of physically unsafe arts spaces.

As we mourn this tragedy, we can take heart in the fact that the electronic music scene was born out of, and made resilient by, struggle — and that no amount of crackdowns has been able to stop it. Far from being fearful or resigned, the response from artists in the Oakland community has affirmed the importance of these spaces for people who use art to survive in the face of lives characterized by oppression.

“If I hadn’t had people inviting me to their unconventional venues over the years I would have been dead a long long time ago,” Oakland-based musician Kimya Dawson wrote in a Facebook post after the fire. “We’re not trying to put each other in danger. We are trying to save each other’s lives.” There will always be artists and people who need spaces to come together and express themselves outside of the mainstream. Let’s not allow this tragedy to be exploited to put even more lives at risk.