I remember to start with that day in Sacramento—a California now nearly thirty years past—when I first entered a classroom, able to understand some fifty stray English words.
The third of four children, I had been preceded to a neighborhood Roman Catholic school by an older brother and sister. But neither of them had revealed very much about their classroom experiences. Each afternoon they returned, as they left in the morning, always together, speaking in Spanish as they climbed the five steps of the porch. And their mysterious books, wrapped in shopping-bag paper, remained on the table next to the door, closed firmly behind them.
An accident of geography sent me to a school where all my classmates were white, many the children of doctors and lawyers and business executives. All my classmates certainly must have been uneasy on that first day of school—as most children are uneasy—to find themselves apart from their families in the first institution of their lives. But I was astonished.
Are You Gonna Go My Way?
International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly. I scurried from one to another, desperately trying to find my black suitcase. Because it was stuffed with drug money, I was more concerned than one might normally be about lost luggage.
I was twenty-three in 1993 and probably looked like just another anxious young professional woman. My Doc Martens had been jettisoned in favor of beautiful handmade black suede heels. I wore black silk pants and a beige jacket, a typical jeune fille, not a bit counterculture, unless you spotted the tattoo on my neck. I had done exactly as I had been instructed, checking my bag in Chicago through Paris, where I had to switch planes to take a short flight to Brussels.
When I arrived in Belgium, I looked for my black rollie at the baggage claim. It was nowhere to be seen. Fighting a rushing tide of panic, I asked in my mangled high school French what had become of my suitcase. “Bags don’t make it onto the right flight sometimes,” said the big lug working in baggage handling. “Wait for the next shuttle from Paris—it’s probably on that plane.”
Had my bag been detected? I knew that carrying more than $10,000 undeclared was illegal, let alone carrying it for a West African drug lord. Were the authorities closing in on me? Maybe I should try to get through customs and run? Or perhaps the bag really was just delayed, and I would be abandoning a large sum of money that belonged to someone who could probably have me killed with a simple phone call. I decided that the latter choice was slightly more terrifying. So I waited.
People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up the onramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk. Not the mud that had splattered the 1egs of my jeans, which felt kind of cold and loose, earlier that day at an airport in New Hampshire. Not the stain on the arm of the wrinkled, damp shirt I wear, a shirt which had looked fresh and clean this morning. Not the tear on the neck of my gray argyle vest, which seems vaguely more eastern than before, especially next to Blair’s clean tight jeans and her pale-blue T-shirt. All of this seems irrelevant next to that one sentence. It seems easier to hear that people are afraid to merge rather than “I’m pretty sure Muriel is anorexic” or the singer on the radio crying out about magnetic waves. Nothing else seems to matter to me but those ten words. Not the warm winds, which seem to propel the car down the empty asphalt freeway, or the faded smell of marijuana which still faintly permeates Blair’s car. All it comes down to is that I’m a boy coming home for a month and meeting someone whom I haven’t seen for four months and people are afraid to merge.
The first I heard of the beach was in Bangkok, on the Khao San Road. Khao San Road was backpacker land. Almost all the buildings had been converted into guest-houses, there were long-distance telephone booths with air-con, the cafes showed brand-new Hollywood films on video, and you couldn’t walk ten feet without passing a bootleg-tape stall. The main function of the street was as a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between East and West.
I’d landed at Bangkok in the late afternoon, and by the time I got to Khao San it was dark. My taxi driver winked and told me that at one end of the street was a police station, so I asked him to drop me off at the other end. I wasn’t planning on crime but I wanted to oblige his conspiratorial charm. Not that it made much difference which end one stayed because the police obviously weren’t active.
I caught the smell of grass as soon as I got out of the cab, and half the travellers weaving past me were stoned.
He left me outside a guest-house with an eating area open to the street. As I studied it, checking the clientele to gauge what kind of place it was, a thin man at the table nearest me leant over and touched my arm. I glanced down. He was, I guessed, one of the heroin hippies that float around India and Thailand. He’d probably come to Asia ten years ago and turned an occasional dabble into an addiction. His skin was old, though I’d have believed he was in his thirties. The way he was looking at me, I had the feeling I was being sized up as someone to rip off.
'What?' I said warily.
He pulled an expression of surprise and held up the palms of his hands. Then he curled his finger and thumb into the a-shaped perfection sign, and pointed into the guest-house.
'It's a good place?'
The ﬁrst time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.
There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls-Royce look like just another automobile. It didn’t quite. Nothing can.
The attendant was the usual half-tough character in a white coat with the name of the restaurant stitched across the front of it in red. He was getting fed up.
'Look, mister,' he said with an edge to his voice, 'would you mind a whole lot pulling your leg into the car so I can kind of shut the door? Or should I open it all the way so you can fall out?'
The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back. It didn’t bother him enough to give him the shakes. At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golﬁng money can do for the personality.
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
By Elizabeth Benedict
It was a morning of disturbing phone calls. My soon-to-be ex-husband and I quarreled about money. My lawyer reminded me I owed her $500. A former student of mine who had just had an abortion wanted me to read the 444-page manuscript of her novel. I was on my way out the door to teach a class at Princeton when the phone rang again. It was a magazine editor from Japan who I had met briefly last summer. Japanese Playboy, for which she worked in New York, needed someone to write a monthly column about sex and she had thought of me.
Me? Had something gotten lost in translation when we’d chatted about our careers? True, I had just written a book called The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers, but it examined the work of John Updike and James Salter, not Hugh Hefner. “The editors want something light, sexy, up-to-the minute and fun,” she said. I opened my mouth to decline as politely as I could when she told me what they would pay. Every month for a year. A lot of money times 12. “Think you might be interested?”
photography by Vicky Moon, Atlantic Cities
by David Lenson (The Massachusetts Review 36. 1 (Spring 1995): 43.)
IT IS SO MUCH A PART of the fabric of Western life that it has come an element of the landscape. In the density of cities or the isolation of dirt roads at the edge of town, the neon iconography of beer and spirits illuminates every corner of the American universe. Bar and lounge find their place in every architectural gesture, from corporate obelisks to side porches of bayou lean-tos to blocks of converted factories. On billboards above town and country, images of bottles and their venerable marks appear: Old Grand-Dad, Old Crow, Hiram Walker, Johnny Walker, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels. These are images of patriarchal comfort: the warmth and greeting of a tavern as a better home; the bottle opened in leisure after a laborious day; the jingle of ice or reassuring pop of a cork or metal cap. Wherever one goes in the West, alcohol is offered like the grasp of a hand—or in place of it. And yet beneath alcohol’s icons and institutions lie its familiar wastes: its broken glass, a body stretched out in the gutter, an angry shout in the street, the wreckage of cars, promises, families and dreams.
As alcohol affects every cell in the body, so it touches every moment of our history from Homer and Plato to the beery homecomings from a dry Iraqi war. Wherever the cultivation of grapes, hops or grain is known, the transmutation of those nutrients into that alternative diet has also been practiced. How deeply alcohol is woven into our history can be seen most clearly in those moments of the drug’s negation, when its afterimage proves as strong as its presence. In those times of its denial, alcohol merely vacates the surface of the landscape and crawls into the secretive holds of those same buildings and streets: the fluorescent church basement of an AA meeting; bootleggers building and tending stills in dry counties of the South; or the obsessive reassertion of the socially metamorphosed drug under Prohibition.
by Jonathan Peterson, Los Angeles Times, December 29th, 1991
Back in the Great Depression, in the days when communism was a gleaming red star that beckoned working-class dreamers from across the sea, 24-year-old Rose Kostyuk packed her bags and moved to Russia.
It was an exciting adventure for a spunky young social worker from Philadelphia. Thousands of miles away, the first real socialist state was being hammered together. Idealists everywhere felt a magnetic pull toward this utopian land of Lenin. All the possibilities of a lifetime lay ahead. The year was 1932.
And then came reality. Kostyuk fell in love with a Russian Communist and left her American husband. She married the Russian and had children. But all around, the workers’ paradise was sinking into a world of terror and paranoia. Finally, there was no escape.
America-safe, familiar, rich America-drifted as far away as a childhood memory.
Hemophilia, Rights, and AIDS
by David L. Kirp, Dissent Magazine, Summer 1997
On a warm afternoon in the autumn of 1996, a limousine pulled up at the gates of the Bayer AG plant in Berkeley, California, and a handful of young men piled out of the car, megaphones to the ready. “We are here to take your name away!” they shouted. “I.G. Farben, I.G. Farben, Zyklon B, Zyklon B”-an unsubtle reference to the lethal gas manufactured by the German pharmaceutical house and used to chilling effect in the Holocaust-“four thousand dead, four thousand dead, four thousand dead.” A cameraman recorded the scene, preparing “great source tape” for television stations to air.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, similar “zaps” were regularly launched by AIDS activists against drug companies. Then, the demonstrators were mainly young gay men, members of ACT-UP, protesting the pricing practices of pharmaceutical houses that made AZT and other drugs unaffordable to many people with AIDS. Though the focus of the 1996 protest remained AIDS, the protesters were hemophiliacs, not homosexuals. A few years earlier, they would have praised the drug company for manufacturing Factor VIII, the blood-clotting concentrate that enabled them to lead normal lives, but this lifeline had proved to be the source of HIV contamination. Consequently, more than half of those with severe or moderate hemophilia were infected with the deadly virus; and, since many nations relied on U.S. suppliers for blood-clotting products, similar calamities were reported not just in the United States but across the globe.
A tragic accident, the pharmaceutical houses called it, but to many hemophilia activists these casualties were the inevitable result of decisions driven by corporate greed.
Out of the nightmare of AIDS a new social movement has emerged. Not only in the United States but in scores of nations, people with hemophilia, historically quiescent, became a vocal group with an identity, an animus and a strategy. Their anger has been directed at firms like Bayer, which manufactured Factor VIII, as well as at governments, for their supposed failure to warn of the danger; at their doctors, who, they asserted, misled them; and even at their own organizations, which allegedly minimized the risk of exposure to HIV. This newly energized movement has demanded compensation from drug companies and governments, as well as apologies for wrong-doing and justice in the criminal courts.
In the midst of the AIDS devastation, people with hemophilia have claimed a degree of control over their own lives, and in so doing, they have obliged governments and transnational corporations to take them very seriously. While this is good news, there is also another, less noticed and less happy, tale to be told-about the fissioning of the AIDS-infected universe along the fault line of the deserving and the undeserving, the innocent and the guilty.