Friday, December 13, 2013

Commodifying "Hookers" for Radio Consumption

"Commodifying Hookers for Radio Consumption?" was originally published by WBEZ (91.5FM) on October 23, 2008

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." (The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990, New York: Knopf)

Eight-Forty Eight's story on women who exchange sex for money and/or drugs on the streets of Chicago's West Side drug economy took me nearly two months to produce. Of all the stories I've done so far, this one taxed me the most, emotionally, physically, and cognitively. You'd think it'd be simple: Find some hookers, interview each of them for 10 minutes, come back to the studio, and then start slapping sound together and hope they find coherence around some narrative arc. How could you go wrong? It's a story about hookers, women who, as Cat (a crackhouse brothel matriarch) always reminds me, "have a 24 hour ATM between our legs." It speaks to a lurid and unseemly world, and the story is almost tantalizing on its face, really. And it plays to the average "normal" person's voyeuristic tendencies.

Well, it hasn't been easy like this. In fact, it's been far more difficult than I ever anticipated. Why? Because journalism, especially when its practitioners interact with dispossessed populations, is in some ways morally indefensible.

So let me begin with a qualified declaration of guilt: This story commits immoral acts. Or does it? Eight years ago I began living among the addicts, hookers, drug dealers, thieves, white collar workers, blue collar workers and others who patronize, frequent, traffic, and otherwise occupy The Brickyard. Having lived there, in a cardboard or plywood shanty, for a total of about two years (once you add together the many different sojourns spread across time), I developed hundreds of meaningful relationships with people who share the problem, the mental illness, of drug addiction.

In the past six months, working as a freelance contributor for WBEZ, I have aspired to create a forum in which these dispossessed people can give voice to their lives, humanize themselves in ways often precluded by the very nature of the popular, profit-oriented mainstream press. The Eight Forty-Eight staff has amazed me with generous offerings of support, technical assistance, conceptual feedback, and all-around embrace of the work and the purpose behind it. But there's an internal contradiction I want to reveal right now: Helping to humanize the dehumanized among us-the hookers, addicts, and thieves-necessitates a form of dehumanization. That is, telling these stories, this one in particular, has required me to reduce complex human beings into "characters" who appear in a "story."

The act of humanizing requires dehumanizing the dehumanized, but in ways different from how they've been dehumanized to date. Their complicated lives-their hopes, biographies, passions-must get reduced to what we call "actualities," or the edited (sometimes heavily so), seemingly "natural", spoken passages that you hear between the voice over narration segments. Producing these stories hinges on my ability to transform these living, breathing, morally-concerned humans into disembodied, less complicated figures in a tale whose contours I determine. I create audio worlds for them to populate. I decide what kind of citizenship they will have in this audio world. I decide what kind of character they will have. And you trust me to get it right.

You trust me to tell an accurate story.

In this audio world I am the benevolent dictator. And they, the "subjects" (a term with dual connotation, technical and political) trust me to get it right. But more than that, they expect me to tell you their respective versions of THE TRUTH. Essentially, they figure that because we have this pre-existing bond, this quasi- or genuine friendship, I will present them in the most flattering ways possible. When I tell them "you're going to be in a radio show," they assume that I mean, "I'm going to present you in a story the way you would most like to see yourself." That, of course, doesn't happen.

In the end, they may disagree with how I have reduced their lives, their persons, to relatively flimsy representations. They may disapprove of MY story, my account of how I see things. My perspective is informed by their perspectives, but it is not synonymous with them. After all, this is MY story to tell. Near the end of this story's production, a colleague of mine said, "Hey, it's great that your piece will be airing on the first day of pledge drive. That's gonna make some money for the station." I don't think my colleague fully appreciated the irony and contradiction inherent to this statement. Here I am, producing a story about women who "rent" their bodies in exchange for money, who prostitute themselves, who get pimped forcefully and subtly by the men in their lives, and their story, as a commodity, will "make money" for someone else.

Throughout the process I have exploited their lives, their relationships, my relationships with them, to the end of producing a story that I hope causes people to think and talk differently about "that hooker" on the corner. I really hope to change the terms of the debate, to force people to realize, or at least consider the notion, that the people in The Brickyard are more similar to us, the so-called "normal people" than they are different. We're all prostitutes. We're all addicts. We're all thieves (e.g., remember those office supplies you took home without approval from the boss?). But we're not all equally situated to prevent these aspects of our lived experience from becoming the "master status" to which the rest of the world holds us accountable.

Imagine your most shameful behavior, the most horrible thing you've done in your life. Now imagine that for the rest of your days you will be known, defined as that act, that moment. If this mental exercise works, you'll feel for a moment what it's like to BE a Brickyard resident.

When the women in this story, and the women of the streets they represent, speak about themselves and talk about their lives, they pepper their narratives with verbs. They don't say, "I'm a prostitute," and they most definitely refrain from calling themselves "sex workers." If they talk about sex at all, they refer to the activities in which they engage to receive income. And money isn't money, at least not in the conventional sense. It's merely a very briefly possessed token whose redemption will afford them the drugs they need to satisfy, momentarily, their illness, their addiction.

As Faye put it, "I can't wait for the next shot (of heroin) because the next shot will keep the next thought from coming. For me, thinking is dying. If I let myself really think about the situation I'm in, I'll probably die from the light of it."‚  So they speak and conceptualize themselves, their Selves, in verbs. They hustle, they work, they trick, they date, or they hook. The nouns associated with these verbs become symbolic prisons, lingusitic carceral cells in which they get reduced to what they are. "Sex is something we do," says Chrissy (my adoptive sister), "not something we are."

To embrace the noun (e.g., Whore) is to resign oneself to the degraded and static status of a spoiled identity. So does the production of a story on hookers become a form of second orderpimping? I have reduced these women to characters, manipulated theiractualities into a (hopefully) compelling story, one that you will consume happily, one whose consumption will inspire you to give your attention and your MONEY to WBEZ.‚  I have pimped the women yet again. (Notice that I did NOT say, "I am their pimp"...always avoid the noun). Is this accurate? If so, is it morally indefensible, as Janet Malcolm might suggest? Or is there some greater good, some positive contribution to public discourse that outweighs my exploitation of the lives of disadvantaged people? In the end, have I done more harm than good? And what about you?‚  Every interaction is suffused with moral phenomena, notions of and concerns about right and wrong. How was your experience listening to the story a moral instance?

How did it affect your moral sentience?  Let me know....

Home Is Where the Heart Is

"Home is where the heart is," was originally published by WBEZ (91.5FM) on July 29, 2008

My house S'out of the ordinary That's right, Don't want to hurt nobody Some things sure can sweep me off my feet Burning down the house (Talking Heads, Burning Down the House)

Something's very wrong here. I just parked my car on the vacant street, packed up my outreach supplies and equipment, and have now mounted the hill looking over the Brickyard camp that Kevin, Laura, and Hoss have occupied. I described this camp in my first Brickyard story last week. I'm looking down on it from the railroad tracks. I don't see the Coleman tents. I don't see any chairs. But I do see Kevin, Laura, Hoss, Rico, and Precious milling around the campsite like pinballs seeking purpose.

As I make my way over the raised railroad track bed, Precious notices me. At first she appears startled, but then she recognizes me and hollers "Hey, Two-Thirty Dirty (my street name), come on in here boy!" I can see she's tweaking, her movements jerky and twitchy, a symptom of the crack cocaine injection she performed a few minutes before I got here. "Soul, 440 ... love," Precious says by way of standard "family" greeting. She's a general of a once powerful but now decrepit and wobbly street gang derived from the Black Souls. Three and a half years ago, the gang's current leader blessed me into the organization. "Black and white, Soul Love," I say back-the standard response. Kevin, Rico, and Hoss gravitate to the camp's entry. "See what they done to us?" Hoss shouts. Yes, I do see.

The camp has been destroyed. The tents are gone. Personal effects strewn across the tamped ground. Even for a homeless shanty village, the place is in disarray. For the first time since they staked claim on this ground, I see discarded used syringes lying on the ground. "What the f**k happened here?" I ask no one in particular. Kevin jumps in, "The [federal] railroad police came by two days ago, two of 'em, and they had their canine with 'em. They came up on us, lined us up, searched us, degraded us, and then told us we had three f***ing hours to get the f**k outta here. So we packed up, hid our tents and personal stuff, and now here we are."

For a moment I consider the possibility that last week's story on how the railroad police burn down the shanty homes of street addicts might have somehow prompted this. But then I realize that this sort of thing happens all the time, and that my little story probably didn't incite this sort of habitat violence. "So what are you doing here?" I ask. No one says a word. Finally, Hoss looks up from the ground and answers, "This is where we live ... it's the only home we got, Greg. Where else we gonna go?"

Yes, it's their home. Of course. That's what I keep trying to tell people. Nearly every homeless person I've ever known has made a home for her/himself. It may not look like your home or my home, and neither you nor I would want to live in a home like it, but it's home to them. "So did they arrest anybody?" Kevin's answers, "No, man, they didn't arrest us. See, here's the thing. They coulda taken us to jail, and all that. But they can't do it, they can't go by the book. The jails are full, man... and the courts will throw out this s**t, and they know that. But they got guns, and dogs, and the right to get rid of us by any means necessary. We're trespassing, we're on federal property.‚  So they yell at us, they tell us we're the scum of the earth, they treat us worse than animals. They know a court case ain't gonna hold, there ain't no charge gonna stick, so they use what power they got to degrade and humiliate us on the spot. And they make us move, they kick us out. I asked one of 'em where we're supposed to live now. You know what he told me? He said, 'I don't care, just get outta here.' He don't care. He just don't care that he just tore apart our home. Just don't show up at his home. That's all."

The junkies, crackheads, hookers, and hustlers living in this camp break the law every day. Their very existence on this land makes them law-breakers. And by proxy, the railroad police punish them. The patrol and investigative processes they implement, which we as taxpayers indirectly support, perform the functions of police, judge, jury, and punisher. The process is the punishment. "One the cops said to me, 'Hey, you guys keep it real neat around here. You had a good thing going here.' Can you believe that?" asks Rico. "Can you believe this guy had the nerve to tell us that we had a good home all the while he's tearing it down and degredating [sic] us? It's sick, man. The only way to treat a man like an animal is to first see him as an animal. How else can you do something like this to another person? You gotta first see them as less than human."

For six hours I sit with the group. We talk, eat, smoke cigarettes. They inject heroin, smoke crack, try to re-assemble a semblance of order to their personal belongings. I help them re-build their neighborhood, the habitat destroyed by purposeful institutional violence. On my way out at the end of the day, I hear Kevin shouting my name. He's running toward me, he stops next to me and shows me a brass candle holder. He hands it to me. I take it. "Hey, I thought you and your old lady might like this. We were using it at night, but we really can't stay here at night no more." It's a house-warming gift from a man whose home the police just destroyed in the name of safety, in the name of law and order.

As an American citizen, I feel deeply ashamed. As Kevin's friend, I am deeply touched. He wants nothing in exchange for this...except maybe for me to continue seeing him as a person who cares about things and about people.

What would you do if someone tore down or burned up your home in the name of a greater good? How do you feel about the annihilation of the Brickyard camp, accomplished on YOUR behalf as a taxpayer? What will you do about this? Applaud? Protest? Whatever you do, if you're reading this then you're likely to end your day in bed, comforted by the certainty that no one will burn down your house while you sleep.

Will You Pray for Us?

Will you pray for us?  Originally published by WBEZ (91.5FM) on July 23, 2008

It's a simple question. Unless you're a journalist, a documentary maker, a man who doesn't believe in God. But it's the only thing Bill asked me to do. Bill and his wife Linda constitute the hub, the nucleus, of a group of homeless and precariously housed people who live, loiter, drink, smoke, laugh, cry, argue, love, and sometimes die at a bustling intersection underneath Interstate 55 on the South Side of Chicago.

My wife Erin and I entered their world recently. We drove by their encampment and noticed them interacting with the police who had "rolled up" on them. Bill's $38,250 in outstanding, unpaid tickets (for loitering, drinking in public, obstructing traffic, etc.) testify to their conspicuousness, their tenacity. Because of my commitment to serving the homeless, the indigent, the marginalized, and doing so ON THEIR TERMS, my wife and I went back to visit them. We wanted to get to know these folks and to help them in any way we could. And, to be honest, I was entertaining notions of possibly telling their story on radio and/or film.

My motivations for visiting them were therefore a blend of good will and self-interest. That's how it always works, in my opinion. We journalists and researchers often act from a blended place--our intentions may be good, even noble. But we also want to advance our careers. That's why a group like this one represents many things-one of which is self-promotion. In the best case, impure altruism outweighs the self-advancement in the calculus of motive. "The Underpass" reminds me a lot of The Brickyard, which I am reporting on for Eight Forty-Eight.

I write this because my first encounter with The Underpass folks differs from my first encounter with The Brickyard. However, nearly every one of my initial sojourns into a so-called "underground" group is marked by good will, self-interest, sincerity, and artifice. So I wasn't at The Brickyard, but I approaching The Underpass speaks to how one goes about entering an "outlaw group," a subculture. So we charged headlong into their lives, hoping to do some good, and maybe develop a comparative analysis of The Brickyard and other places where people engineer their own off-the-books solutions to the failure of the American Dream. After brief introductions I opened my "trick bag." The bag's contents? Bottles of drinking water. Clean, sterile needles. Kits for safer crack smoking. Condoms. Antibacterial liniment for cuts and scrapes.

The people there were agog at the presents coming out of my bag. They marveled and wondered aloud how this could be legal. We gave them identification cards authorizing their legal possession of the crack kits and syringes (although only one person there took the needles, and only a few took the crack kits, and even fewer had any use for drinking water, but several took condoms, if only for "a friend"). "We're all pretty much just drunks here," Bill reported kindly, his clear blue eyes radiating out from a weather-worn face. We yukked it up for two hours. Great conversation. They shared parts of their life stories. And we shared ours, when asked, but mostly we just listened, assuming a seated position on the ground, in the figure of student. Jason incurred a massive brain injury one year ago in an automobile accident that killed his best friend. He's now illiterate, trying to raise a daughter single-handedly. "My uncle's a drunk, he hangs out here, and he loves these people. They're all good people. So I come down here to check on him just about every other day." Dan's a heroin addict. He's been shooting dope for more than 20 years. He hates being addicted, and he hopes to kick it one day soon. "But it's hard, man, I can't stand the withdrawal. Some people can do it, they can go cold turkey. Not me. I need help. So does my old lady. I can't stop, or stay stopped, when she's still using. I'm too weak."

Dan asked my opinion, so I replied, "Well, I wouldn't say you're weak. It's just that everybody experiences the drug, and the addiction, their own way... different from everybody else. Just because one person kicked cold turkey doesn't mean that everyone else can." Dan considered this, "Hmm, yeah, I guess you're right. I need help. That's not a bad thing, I guess." Stella is a proud mother of six children. And she happens to smoke crack. She and her boyfriend have a camp under the expressway above us. "We've got a nice set-up. We even got us a table for sitting." She spends 15 minutes braiding my wife's hair while we chat it up. Linda (Bill's wife) used to sell lighting to commercial enterprises. She's been institutionalized, voluntarily and against her will, on several occasions. She's very religious, and she tithes and offers every month because "my pastor told me that if I keep giving, even when I've got nothing to give, then when I start slipping back, God will keep the devil off my back." Bill loves Linda. "She's beautiful," he says matter-of-factly, as though he's telling me that we're now standing on a concrete sidewalk.‚  But she never ever shuts up," he says with a laugh, "except when she's drinking." We've handed out the goods. The group seems fairly well convinced that I'm not out there to hassle them. I'm not there to get them to stop doing what they do.

Now I ask, "Anything you need us to do here?" "Yeah," Bill says, "will you pray for us?" Silence. An icy vice grips my intestines. I'm shocked...and scared. He can't be serious. In all my years of doing street-level outreach, research, journalism, and documentary work, no one has ever asked me to pray for them. And I haven't even prayed since I was 8-years-old. In fact, I pride myself in part on being profane, on embodying profanity. I try to laugh it off, nervously. But no one else is laughing. So I stop the feigned chuckle and ask, "You really want me to pray for you?" Bill's earnest eyes stir something inside of me, an emotion that makes me want to cry. Everyone starts shuffling toward a huddle formation. "Yes, I do. Please," Bill says softly. "Okay." And here I go. I can't believe I'm doing this. I don't know what to say.

Everyone's now moving in swiftly, concertedly, pushing their hands toward the middle. I've coached little league baseball for many years, and it occurs to me that I'm just leading a cheer, really. Guys who were lingering on the margins of the group have now moved, nearly a dozen people have crowded around. Bill looks up at me, supplication is the word that comes to mind. Drawing on some long-since padlocked reserve of divine worship, I begin speaking. I realize that I'm not praying to God for these folks. I'm praying to humanity, to a sort of American collective conscience, and maybe God is listening. I feel enveloped by a secular moralism that, to me, feels holy. "Heavenly father, we pray in your name, gathered here today, we ask for your divine mercy, we ask for your mercy and forgiveness, and we ask that you bless each step we take, the ground we walk upon, the souls that now live inside our bodies. We ask that you grant us the power of that we may forgive ourselves and those who lack mercy and compassion. Please be with us, always and forever, dear God. In the name of your son, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen."

And so it went.

Bill looked up at me and said, "That was the best prayer anyone's ever said for me. It's the best I've heard. It's the only prayer that's moved me in my heart." I don't know if Bill was putting me on. And I don't know why he asked me to pray for them. Was he testing me? Did he figure that I was just another "religion and rice" street corner preacher promising food in exchange for the acceptance of Jesus Christ (and an offering) and that I therefore would be most comfortable leading a prayer? Bill doesn't even believe in God. But it's clear that he believes in something.

Later, while looking into an abandoned but highly trafficked building near Douglas Park, Erin and I talked at length about whether or not I should have agreed to lead the prayer. There's no clear answer. Not in my mind anyway. I ask you: should I have declined (politely) to pray for them? After all, I don't believe in God. And I am not a spiritual leader. I was there doing outreach and perhaps some journalism. Is it a breach of ethics to occupy, under "false pretenses," a position of spiritual leadership, if only for 90 seconds? I'm pretty sure I know why I agreed to pray, and I could give you a well-reasoned argument justifying it. But what would you have done? Would you have led the prayer?

Two Guns in a Gym Bag

Originally published by WBEZ (91.5FM) on August 3, 2008

"If you're going to get in with outlaws and write about them, then you've got to be willing to break the law yourself." -- Mark Fleisher (mentor)

D-Bo, a West Side heroin and crack cocaine dealer, hands me an old gym satchel, and starts rapping insistently on Jenny's front door. All morning Jenny's been slamming me with text messages, issuing a frantic series of "911" missives alerting me to her boyfriend's increasingly violent tantrums. Now here I stand next to D-Bo, the two of us here to "evict" Jenny's boyfriend, Darren, a reckless but profitable dealer of heroin and crack cocaine. Jenny and I hatched our "friendship" in a Cicero crackhouse. She's a self-titled "functional crackhead," a former exotic dancer who now works as an executive assistant to a cosmetics tycoon. Every evening, most mornings before work, and all weekend long, Jenny runs the crack circuit, usually traversing the same turf I occupy. She came out of nowhere...few autobiographical details. But she's got money, she smokes crack, she shares her money and drugs, and she helps "dysfunctional addicts" with their daily business.

"Money buys love out here," a local dealer named Mike tells me, "and it buys forgiveness." He trusts Jenny, "but only about half as far as I can throw her." Whatever the case, the local gang leader has told me she's all right. When I'm out here on the streets, I defer to him on matters such as this. After all, his blessing is my protective shield. I am, in his eyes, a Black Soul. Jenny comes to the door, flings it open dramatically. She's crying. Darren smacked her a few times, I later learn. D-Bo and I enter the house. She's trying to tell us something in confidence, out of Darren's earshot. But we can't make sense of her words. We take her into the bathroom, where all she can manage to say is, "I want him out of here now. And I want my apartment keys and my car keys."

Clear enough. D-Bo takes the lead. Out the bathroom, I'm tailing D-Bo to Darren's "business," a bedroom in the apartment set aside for storage and dealing of drugs. Darren's pissed. He doesn't want to leave. He's shouting, pounding the wall. D-Bo's in Darren's face, yelling at him to calm down. He grabs Darren in a half nelson, ushers him to Darren's business room, shoves him in there, tells him to sit the f**k down and shut the f**k up. He comes out to the hallway, where I'm standing, and grabs the gym bag from my hand. When he grabs the bag, I realize what's in there--a heater. A handgun. A piece. A life sentence. When he opens the bag, I see two handguns--a .45 and a .357. D-Bo grabs the bigger gun, and I'm left holding the .357. I see that it's loaded. I zip up the bag. Jenny sees D-Bo enter Darren's room, gun in hand. I'm thinking, "I'm f**ked, we're all f**ked."

Jenny darts out the bathroom, her robe coming loose and exposing her body, which is naked from the waist up. She tries to storm the business room to stop D-Bo from hurting Darren, but D-Bo shoves her back into the hallway, where she sees me holding the gym bag sporting some obvious weight, like a pregnant alley cat. Her eyes meet mine, and I can see her next move. Jenny comes at me with hands groping for the bag. She wants the other gun, whose envelopment in the bag she has deduced. I back away while unzipping the bag, pull the gun out, and shove it in the back of my pants. I push her away, throw the bag aside, and guide her into a chair in the kitchen. It all happens in one unpunctuated motion. I'm too close to this situation. I'm just a writer. Why am I here? What am I going to do if D-Bo shoots Darren? I can't stop or even slow the salvo of questions battering my mind. So I focus on Jenny and try to calm her down. She keeps asking for the gun.

Together we wonder what's happening in the business room. They've been in there for a while now. Time passes. Jenny's tear storm has passed; she has dressed herself in casual attire; cosmetics have been applied to her face. "What the f**k is goin' on in there?" she asks ... it's a rhetorical question, but she and I communicate almost telepathically with each other that the answer is obvious. Then she says it, "They're getting high...those motherf**kers are getting high together!"

Now she's fuming. And beating on the business room door. Long and short of it: D-Bo went in there and tried to calm Darren, who quickly figured out the way to get himself off the hook and buy some extra time here at Jenny's: Get D-Bo high and then give him what he wants. D-Bo has been hurting lately. He lost his previous, lucrative "lick" (illegal money-making endeavor). Darren, knowing all of this, turns D-Bo on to some crack, a "bump" of heroin, and then cuts a deal with D-Bo to distribute Darren's narcotics in exchange for a hefty commission. D-Bo went into the business room with a purpose derived from friendship and love: Evict Darren to protect Jenny. Once in the room, his purpose changed as he discerned a way to satisfy the greater mission of self-preservation and self-advancement.

Coming out of the room, D-Bo and Darren appear to be best buddies, long-time friends reunited after years of separation. Jenny's pissed, but D-Bo tells her, "This man really loves you. And he's doing his business. You can't just kick him outta here...he's got clients, he's got his s**t here ... you know, he needs time. But I think you all love each other. You really do. And you can work it out." D-Bo says all of this with a gun in his back pocket and crack and heroin in his front pockets. He says this as Darren's newest employee. We all know what's going on. Money buys love, it buys friendship, it buys forgiveness, and it buys loyalty. Most important of all, though, it buys betrayal. "If you want to understand what's going on with people's relationships on the street," a colleague once told me, "follow the money." But are "street people" any different from "the rest of us"? Can you take stock of your relationships and honestly say that they nothing to do with the distribution of either material resources (e.g., money, property) or symbolic resources (e.g., reputation, status)? Can you think of a time when you entered a relationship, did something good for someone, betrayed someone and the reason had to do with money?

"Hurricane Blow" - Behind-the-Scenes of a Drugs, Inc. Documentary

Drugs, Inc. 3: “Hurricane Blow” (New Orleans)

“People don't live in New Orleans because it is easy. They live here because they are incapable of living anywhere else in the just same way.” – Ian McNulty, A Season of Night: New Orleans Life After Katrina

“New Orleans is the city that sobriety forgot.”  -- Corey Vinegar

It’s July in New Orleans.  The air feels like thick, hot soup.  The reassuring scents of lush flora and vigorous Gulf Coast fauna mix with the stench of vomit and urine to create a contradictory odor of hospitality and caution.  Out there in the “normal” world of workaday folks, the Big Easy gets easier this time of year.  But here in the world of street drugs, life accelerates through the heavy, wet heat that engulfs the city.

As a crew, we’ve set out to insinuate ourselves into the warp and woof of street drug culture in post-Katrina New Orleans.  We’re in the Bywater neighborhood to meet up with Stumps Duh Clown, a local underground legend.  Stumps is the godfather of the gutter punks, old-timey traveler kids, itinerant youth, and circus performers.  He plays a vital role in maintaining New Orleans’ long-standing tradition of opening its arms to train-hopping, rail-riding, cheap booze guzzling “miscreants.”  Walking down the grass alley -- festooned on both sides by overwrought graffiti, Mardi Gras beads, and salvage art and flanked by a voodoo temple – the crew’s expectations begin to mount.  Our saunter quickens its clip.  My producer, Jessi Mosley, and our production assistant, Joe Shriner, hurry their pace, all of us proceeding in a vibrating silence.

Suddenly we’re standing in Stumps’ outdoor living room – a couch, three stuffed and tattered chairs, a coffee table littered with empty beer cans and overworked ash trays, the whole arrangement protected by a government-issued blue tarp (the same tarp distributed by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina blasted the city to shreds seven years ago). The first thing I notice is Stumps’ chrome hollow-body guitar.  Then I see the crown of expletive tattoos encircling his stubble-shaved head, making his hairline a message of unapologetic rebuff for the world of normal.  My ears prick to the sound of him finger picking and singing his own plaintive yet sneering version of the classic Townes Van Zandt song, “Waitin’ Around to Die.”  The notoriously noisy world of New Orleans insects fades as I sink into the song and--with a blood quickening flash--realize that we’ve just entered the eye of the street scene’s own hurricane.

There’s someone sitting on the couch next to Stumps.  He’s holding a guitar that we later learn was gotten for $15 from Wal-Mart’s toy section, sanded down, repainted, and re-strung to play music for money on the streets (“busking”).  “This is my friend Corey Vinegar,” Stumps says.  At this moment I reflect on how Corey’s name squares nicely with the city’s often perplexing presentation of stark contrasts, impossible quagmires, and unresolved contradictions.  At Stumps’ direction, we slump into the waterlogged loveseat.  Over a long procession of canned beer we chat away the hours of the hot, mosquito-laden evening.  As midnight approaches, Stumps suggests that we adjourn to the local bar, a place that hasn’t seen a bona fide tourist in its entire 50-year life.

At the bar … it becomes clear to me that Corey will be a central contributor to the film.  He’s smart, industrious, clever, articulate, streetwise, effectively self-educated; all in all, an immensely compelling figure.  Plus, he’s more connected to the street drug scene than anyone I’ve met.  Over a pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, Corey explains the intricate filigree that connects tourism, the city’s number one industry, to the world of illicit drugs: “Tourism keeps this place going. All of the performers, clubs, restaurants, bouncers, whatever – depend on them.  This place would really go downhill without them.  But without us – the buskers, musicians, hustlers, drug dealers -- they wouldn’t have a good time. So it all works together.”

Above all else, Corey is a hustler.  A survivor.  He’s a man who marshaled difficult, episodically violent life experiences and put them into service as raw material for the building of character.  And boy, is he ever a character.  Corey arrived in New Orleans literally in the wake of Katrina.  When he set out to hitchhike from Florida to his “second home,” he had no idea what to expect.  His main concern was the wellbeing of his many friends who chose to hunker down and stay through the Category 5 hurricane that ended up killing nearly 1,900 people, making it one of the top 5 most destructive storms in U.S. history.  “I couldn’t stop wondering how many of my friends were part of that death toll,” he says.  “Thankfully, everyone was okay,” Corey continues, a sense of recollected relief passing over his face, dampening his smile with the memory of all those strangers whose bodies he did find. 
Following a declaratory belch, Stumps leans into the conversation, “For us, life is divided in two – before Katrina … and after.  We’re still trying to recover from it.”  Stumps breaks his distant stare to order up another two pitchers of beer (they drink by the pitcher, not the glass or bottle – “It’s cheaper that way,” Stumps explains, “and when you drink 18 hours a day, you gotta be thrifty.”). 
Corey excuses himself to the washroom, a ritual I later discover to be relevant to our filmmaking endeavor.

Corey Vinegar enjoys altering his consciousness through the use of cocaine.  He’s very open and upbeat about this.  In fact, he’s forthright about nearly everything it seems.  Corey might well be the most earnest soul I’ve yet encountered.  For three hours Corey tells us about his life, imparting detailed accounts of everything from his first (and extremely intense) experience with drugs and sex to freight-train hopping adventures to learning the songbooks of his favorite blues artists, all of whom are “blind, black, and dead.”  Though I don’t realize it at the moment, he soon will become our trusty guide into the “underworld” of street drugs and violence that has made New Orleans into one of the mass media’s “go to” cities for stories about murder, mayhem, and drug addiction in America.
At 3 a.m. Corey and Stumps approach my bar stool and urgently inform me that “there’s someone here you need to meet.”  They usher me to the bar’s back room, now emptied of people but striated with layers of cigarette and marijuana smoke.  A man sits in a wobbly chair behind a cheap table covered in faux wood grain laminate.  Although he’s sitting, I can see that he’s tall and lanky.  His eyes clock my progress to the chair positioned at the opposite side of the grease-shellacked table.  I wonder whom I’m meeting and whether we’re going to play poker or Russian roulette.  It’s that kind of mood, that kind of countenance he’s bearing.  His quiet gaze bores into me, pins me firmly to the unsteady drunkard’s chair I’ve dragged to the table.

“This is Bix-T,” Stumps says, “and Bix, this is Greg, the movie guy.”  With this brief (and for my taste slightly unnerving) introduction, Stumps and Corey leave me alone with Bix and return to the half-full pitchers of PBR eagerly awaiting their return to the bar.

It occurs to me that I’ve seen this man before.  Several times in the past week, in fact.  Always in bars and taverns, always mingling with gutter punks and the “Bywater Crusty” crowd.  Always in the shadows, his wispy figure making serpentine routes through fleeting interactions marked with equal parts cheeriness and covertness, his presence inspired in me more than a fair amount of wary intrigue … and electrifying suspicion.  With his first words, his opening gambit, he answers my question:  “I deal drugs.  Cocaine.  Pills.  Whatever them people want.”

Over the next few weeks we come to know “Bix-T” pretty well … as well as any outsider with a camera can know a drug dealer.  During the day we observe that him in action as successful construction contractor.  “I build shit.  I rebuild shit.  After the sun goes down and I change my clothes, I sling shit – and that’s where the real money’s at, dealin’ coke and pills.” 

Bix-T the Contractor helped rebuild New Orleans.  He quickly learned that he could “pay” his workers more cheaply in drugs, crack and powder cocaine, than in cash.  He lays out his scheme one night while we sit with him in an abandoned factory situated on the Mississippi River. It’s one of the many disused structures that Bix utilizes for his own various drug-selling purposes.  Tonight he’s using this place to cut, mix, and bag up the new batch of cocaine he just got from his supplier.  He talks while his hands adroitly apply a switchblade knife to the end of filling tiny drug bags.  “Payin’ my workers in drugs made my profit margin bigger.  And them people, they’d work like slaves.  Like slaves.  Man, I feel bad about that.  But somebody’s gonna do it.  Might as well be me.” 

Over the ensuing weeks, we spend a good deal of time with Bix and several members of his steady client base.  He schools us in the deep and pronounced racialized roots of Southern Poverty.  One sunny, excruciatingly hot and humid day we find ourselves parked in his truck alongside the 9th Ward levee, and he puts it bluntly:  “If you’re black and living in The South, you need to have a hustle.  If you don’t have one, you better get one.  Period.  Otherwise, you gonna starve to death.  My hustle is drugs.  And I do my hustle in the best place in the whole country to do it: New Orleans.  This here, this is an intoxication destination.”  Bix explains that the post-Katrina drug market is far more robust than it was before the storm.   “There’s more drugs, better drugs, more addicts.  It’s a gold mine.  All because us drug dealers evacuated like everybody else, ‘cept when we got to Houston and Atlanta, we made connections with new suppliers with better shit.  And we got that shit back here with all them trucks carrying water, blankets, clothes, shoes, building materials, you name it.”

Bix states the case pointedly: “Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that ever happened for drug dealers in New Orleans.”

It’s our last night in New Orleans.  We’ve spent 30 days traversing the labyrinth of the city’s underground drug markets, awash in heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and various pharmaceuticals.  Days have given way to blurry nights ended rudely by sunrises casting their unforgiving light into the nooks and crannies where users and dealers congregate and transact--corner bars, forlorn and storm damaged buildings turned “squats,” abandoned vehicles, alleyways, and the like.  Bix-T has returned from “re-upping” (purchasing bulk cocaine from his supplier in Texas), and the gutter punks gravitate to a bar in the French Quarter for a musical performance by their godfather, Stumps Duh Clown.  The gang’s all here.

Bix sits alone, as usual, at a small table in the corner, watching the expanding crowd like a hawk.  He notices Corey Vinegar: “That’s my first customer right there.”  Bix-T’s well-honed prescience enjoys validation a mere 10 minutes later as he and Corey crowd into the tiny washroom.  Corey gets a free “bump” (small, trial-size quantity) of Bix’s new batch of cocaine.  “Oh man, that’s good,” Corey exclaims in a stuffy nasal tone.   “This is gonna be a great night, a long night, a fucking legendary night!”  Bix interrupts him, “Corey, you know this shit don’t grow on trees …” Corey smiles, “Yeah, Bix, I got your money.”  Not missing a beat, Bix laughs and says, “Well you best be getting’ it, white boy.  Like you said, it’s MY money.”  Corey bolts from the washroom, hoping to collect a cash debt from off a fellow gutter punk whose been strung out on heroin for several months now. 
Through the washroom door I hear Stumps’ slide-fueled intro to his “prison song.”  Bix looks at me and says, “This is my favorite Stumps song.”  He stashes the cocaine in his pocket and hurries back to his table, leaving me standing there at the sink, camera on my shoulder, absorbing the inimitable sound of Stumps’ words folding into the sounds he finger-plucks from the strings of his chrome guitar.

            “I aint’ got nobody, don’t nobody got mine.  I ain’t got nobody, just doin’ my time.”

When I make my exit from the washroom, I find a bar teeming with crusties, punks, travelers, old-timeys, and an eclectic mix of tourists.  They’re all potential customers of Bix-T.  Meanwhile, Bix sits at his table, sipping a beer, discretely conducting his affairs.  Corey’s flying high.  A few of Bix’s competitors poke their heads in the door only to find Bix drumming them out of the place with his cold stare.  Stumps lays into “Waitin’ Around to Die,” and I’m put in mind of a freight train barreling down the track that leads to its final decommissioning station.  Corey sidles up to my table, sits down, and into my ear and says, “This song is about life in New Orleans.  But it’s not sad because if everyone everywhere is waitin’ to die.  But nobody does the waiting like we do here.  Nobody waits like we do in New Orleans.”  And that about says it all. 

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Questions from the Audience

Our film screened last night at STIFF (Seattle True Independent Film Festival). The packed crowd at the Jewel Box Theater had lots of good questions during the Q&A that followed our session. I thought I'd present some of those questions here, and try to answer them a little more fully than time allows during the brief period following the film.

Q: How did you gain their trust? How did you get access to so many intimate moments among people engaged in illegal behavior?

A: I have spent the better part of the past 8 years living with, documenting, and trying to promote harm reduction among the folks you see in the film. They all live in one very small "outlaw community" on the west side of Chicago. And in that community I have worked through the Chicago Recovery Alliance, a needle exchange/HIV prevention organization, to promote "any positive change" as defined by illegal drug users themselves. My first encounter with many of these folks involved providing them with free sterile syringes, condoms and/or lube, "safer crack smoking" kits, and other free stuff. As a researcher, I also invited them into some of my paid studies. Gradually I earned their trust. And instead of them coming to me at the needle exchange, I began going to them. They let me into their homes as "the needle and pipe guy." For various reasons--research, radio documentary, film documentary, print journalism--I ended up living with many of them in various places, including the house featured in this film. And as they picked up on my tendency to use film or audio to document everything in my life, they grew more receptive over time to being filmed. I also engaged in many different activities that convinced them I wasn't a narc or someone out to get them arrested. Also, I was always willilng to show them "dailies," raw cuts of footage, which I think ultimately convinced them that I was essentially making "home movies," and that I considered them to be members of my extended family. And this is really how I see "The Family at 1312": It's my way of representing one aspect of the people who have become like family to me.

Q: How much of the film is acted for the camera, and how much is "real"?

A: First of all, nothing you see in a documentary is "real" in a definitive sense. The camera can assume only one angle at a time. The microphones only pick up sound within a certain range. There's a lot you're missing as a director and audience member just by virtue of the camera and mic placement. Then there's the existential question of what's "real" and what's not, and whether there really is such a thing as "real". Those conversations bore the shit out of me, so let's not bother with them here. Let's take the issue of people acting for the camera: No one can act like anyone but themselves, at least in a documentary film. When people in a documentary are "acting," usually they're trying to be more like the role they're having to play at that moment in time. They focus on doing themselves more clearly and than they're accustomed to doing it. How could they be someone else? At most, they can only be themselves working very hard to perform their "selves" as poignantly as possible at that moment in time. And in many cases, that's exactly what you want from them as a documentarian--the clearest and most salient performance of role you can get from them. In this film, what you see is pretty much what happened. People weren't acting ... they were just being who they are. I can state this with confidence because I have lived with them and have observed them without a camera for hundreds of hours. A few times during production someone would try to spice things up a bit and would ham it up for the camera. Why were they doing this? Because life in a crackhouse is really boring most of the time, much as life in a traditional American household is pretty boring most of the time. The scenes of them hamming it up to keep us entertained were very amusing, and illustrated their commitment to making sure we were having a good time doing the work (quite the normative impulse), and ultimately were laid to rest on the cutting room floor. After we see Cat (or rather, hear Cat) enacting violence on Laura and hearing Laura imply that the camera's power to build an audience in the subject's mind propelled Cat to inflict pain on Laura, Cat says "fuck that camera, that's just me." I believe Cat. I believe that even if the camera had not been present, she would have "labeled into" Laura. Why do I believe this? Because I have seen Cat in action so many times before, and because I have seen Cat specifically go after Laura so many times before. And I have seen how Laura negotiates these situations, and how she quite unwittingly precipitates the very violence she bemoans.

Q: How much of the dialogue was prompted by your questions?

A: I tend to shy away from interview-heavy documentaries, for lots of reasons. The biggest reason is that I believe documentarians use interviews when they can't (or won't take the time to) figure out any other way to SHOW what's going on. So they ask someone questions, and then they edit the answers so that someone can be telling the audience what's going on. This film depicts a complicated situation--a matriarchal crackhouse brothel populated by 20-30 different people at one time. My dream is to make a 12-hour film (a la Warhol, right?) that allows the viewer to really get to know the place on its own terms, without having someone narrate the scene or explain what's happening or tell the audience who is who and who is doing what. But let's face it, only three or four people would ever watch such a film. And I really do want people to see the movies that we make. So we must condense and simplify. One of the most effective ways to simplify, in this case, was by having some of the key figures in the film talk about the situations and events and relationhips presented in the movie. So I would periodically ask some open-ended, vague question, and the person would answer it. About 20 minutes into their answer, they would say something really compelling and clear, and that's the part that you end up seeing on the screen. So yes, some of the dialogue is prompted by my questions, but most of what you hear was spoken a very long time after the prompt was issued.

Q: Why do you blackout the violence between Cat and Laura? Is it an artistic "thing"?

A: No, it's not an artistic or aesthetic decision, at least not in the way most people think about such things. I had several reasons for blacking out the visual representation of Cat waging retribution on Laura while retaining the audio: First, If you watch/listen carefully, Cat instructs everyone to "get out of the kitchen" so that she can punish Laura. I obeyed Cat, but I took my time doing it. As I backed out of the kitchen, I pushed the sound recordist behind me, into an adjacent bedroom, while I kept filming Cat beating Laura. Upon telling everyone to clear the kitchen, Mike Mike (the self-appointed rule speaker of the group), makes an effort to get people out of the kitchen. He half-heartedly scooted me out of the way, but I kept filming. This clearly violates Cat's trust. Just because she didn't really give me and the crew the necessary time to get out of the kitchen doesn't mean that I should have kept filming what she was doing. And just because I did capture the visual of her beating Laura doesn't mean that I should or must show it to you, the audience member. This leads to the second reason: You haven't earned the right to view this extremely intimate family moment. No one there, including Cat, enjoys physically injuring another member of the family. It's considered to be one of the most intimate and serious things you can do to a fellow family member. If I were documenting your family, and one of your relatives began to give a spanking to his/her young child, and I happened to have caught it on film even though I was specifically asked not to film it, would you want me showing the violence? So in a way, blacking out the violence reminds you, the audience member, that I was there, that this is my representation and is therefore not the ultimate TRUTH, and that I worked hard to gain the kind of trust necessary to witness/film such events. Moreover, I am reminding you that you HAVE NOT done the requisite work to gain their trust and as a result witness such things. Fourth, showing you the violence would have been unfaithful to the experience you would have had if you had been in the house with us. We shot 45 hours' worth of footage, and in the end we have presented a 34-minute film. Obviously we did a lot of editing. You're not seeing way more than you are seeing. My job was to distill, condense, extract, shrink, and simplify the footage and then fashion and mold it into some kind of structure that would give you an experience, provide you with some entree to this world, introduce you to a scence that you otherwise might never get to experience firsthand. Had you been in the house with me, you would have been ushered out of the kitchen, and you only would have heard the violence. You wouldn't have seen it. So why would I show it to you now? Doing so would be garish and wrong on many scores. Fifth, showing you the violence just for the sake of showing you the violence would render this film about as morally upstanding as the piece "Crackheads Gone Wild (Pick Your City)". In so many ways, this movie and every movie I make about the folks in this particular little part of the world is an expression of love and respect. While it's true that the films aren't always flattering to them, and I never glorify or celebrate them, I do try to create representations of events and situations, and in these representations the subjects humanize themselves. This is pretty easy for them to do because, after all, they ARE humans. But we like to forget that they're humans. This kind of inhumane amnesia allows us to dismiss them, to put the blame back on them, to silently condone through our collective inaction the kind of systemic abuses they incur every day of their lives. Each film, for me, is an expression of respect, even if I'm not depicting a person or persons in flattering terms. As they say on the street, "I'm keeping it real." I'm crafting a "straight up" representation, which is what Cat appreciates most. Same with Jeff. Also with Pam and Steve. And so it goes for every person who's ever appeared in and then watched a film I've made. Years ago I asked Jeff what he thought about seeing himself in a film I had made, and his words echoe the sentiments of most everyone else I've talked to, and their poignancy say it all for me: "I don't like a lot of what I see here, but you got it right, straight up ... it's real. It ain't all good, but it ain't all bad. It's fair, and that's more than what I get most days out of people. So I like it, even just for the fact that it doesn't tell lies about me."

Q: What's your next project? And will you ever get into fiction film?

A: Our next project is an extension of the short film "Matrimony," which follows a homeless, heroin-addicted married couple as they attempt to enact and realize their marriage beyond the bullshit cultural strictures and norms associated with this cultural institution. We're working on a re-cut ... the current version is 8m, and we're aiming for a good, solid 15-20 min. Then we'll finish post-production on a feature length film called "Sawbuck City," which presents a 7-year chronicle of the larger Chicago community in whose context I have made all of the previous films .... And yes, we'd like to get into fiction film. I have a few script ideas, as does Erin. All we need is a little bit of money and for someone to come along and say they'd like to serve as "executive producer" on a fiction film project.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Three members of the Sawbuck crew will be roaming Seattle's streets this weekend. Actually, we'll probably be sitting inside movie theaters watching films and surreptitiously nipping at the flask. Our film "The Family at 1312" screens Saturday, so come out and join us for some NC-17 fun!