These stories are particularly dear to me.
Looking back, I consider them milestones, pieces that have defined and distinguished my work over my forty-some years of journalism—adventures, high jinks, near-death moments, and wrenching intimate encounters that have helped to shape me as a writer and as a man.
Included in A Boy and His Dog in Hell are 19 stories about people from a wide variety of circumstances and cultures—all of them distinctly American. In this time of deep division, I hope these profiles stand as a testament to an over-arching humanness that spans our great differences. During the course of my career, I have learned nothing if not this: Even as we are each of us wonderfully odd, curious, entertaining, and peculiar, we are all of us very much cut from the same stuff.
While I am fond of the many crime stories and celebrity profiles that have occupied and enriched my life both personally and professionally, A Boy and His Dog highlights my work as an anthropologist without portfolio. In a more modern context, each of these stories is very much like a reality series, time spent with a person or community of people you would not ordinarily get to meet.
If it was my 11th grade journalism teacher, Dora Simons, who first introduced me to the idea of writing articles, it was the anthropologist Margaret Meade, and her groundbreaking Coming of Age in Samoa—assigned for my class in Anthroplology 101during the first term of my freshman year in college—who put me on my present course. Getting from there to here, of course, required ample help, particularly from Walt Harrington at The Washington Post, my mentor for all things New Journalism; Bob Love at Rolling Stone, who taught me extended structure and challenged me with the gift of incredible stories; and David Granger and Peter Griffin, my dynamic duo at Esquire. Truly told, Granger was the first to double down on my Harrington-inspired interest in doing “intimate journalism.” Before Granger came along, getting the green light to do my form of anthropology (how dull does that sound in a pitch meeting?) necessarily involved a Dante-esque list of ingredients including death, drugs, exotic locations and/or mayhem. Truth be told, it was Granger who embraced the form as a way of allowing me to explore the universality of the human condition. First there was Big, about a 650-pound man, which he championed into print at GQ. Later, at Esquire, there were dozens more. “Old.” “Ugly.” “The Secret Life of a Beautiful Woman.” “The Man of Tomorrow Goes to the Prom,” At some point, someone used the term Literary Anthropology to describe my work. I have tried my best to live up.
Warming my hands by the cultural fires of so many diverse characters and groups and settings over my time, I’ve observed how strongly our world depends upon cultural stereotypes, clannish dictates, misconceptions, hate and fear, political correctness, and mythology—our notions of what is supposed to be true, what is considered to be true, what other people say you should think and do, what is gospel.
No matter where I have gone, no matter whom I’ve met, no matter how low or how high, I’ve practiced a technique of keeping my mind open—I’ve come to call it suspending disbelief. I spend a lot of time. A lot of time. I keep my mouth shut, my eyes and ears open, and my audio recorder running. I pay attention. I act respectfully. I listen deeply. I earn trust by example. I learn to read the subtext. I keep an open mind and an open heart. Never have I failed to find a human connection—except in those few cases where I was unavoidably beaten, threatened with a gun, or roughed up by soldiers of a desperate regime. In those cases, I was dealing with strangers, people I hadn’t planned to be around, who knew nothing about me and didn’t care to learn. In such conditions, the only recourse was to survive and retreat. There is evil in the world, yes. But principally what I’ve learned is that different doesn’t have to be evil, or scary, or threatening. Knowledge is power. And people are generally just people. Chances are if someone is fucking with you, it’s someone who’s either desperate or afraid. After every assignment, I have unfailingly returned home with new understanding, new insight, new truths I’d have never imagined unless I’d walked without judgment the proverbial mile in the shoes of another.
Overall, I’ve learned that you can’t hope to know what your neighbor is really thinking if you’re yelling instead of listening . . . or avoiding them. . . or trying to kill them. You have to listen, even if it hurts. Even if you don’t like what they’re saying. At least then you’ll really know who and what you’re dealing with. Along the way, you may gain a little insight. To accomplish this takes a willingness to look for the heart of people. And maybe the inner strength to be secure in your own skin. If you’re secure enough, differences become fascinating instead of threatening.
The stories in this book represent a lot of miles in a lot of different shoes, from cowboy boots to signature Kobe Bryants—a tour of an America few people ever see, safe as they are within the borders of their own colorful square in the nation’s patchwork quilt of diverse cultures, communities, and circumstances.
We meet: A pair of young Puerto Rican brothers, living marginally in the slums of North Philadelphia, working the corner selling cocaine and fighting stolen pit bull dogs to the death. The members of a once-proud Latinx street gang, the V-13 from Venice, CA, have lost their fortunes in a cloud of crack smoke. Seven-foot six-inch, Sudanese-born NBA basketball player Manute Bol—the first time he attempted a dunk, he broke his front teeth on the ten-foot rim. He went on to become one of the greatest shot-blockers in the history of the National Basketball Association.
We spend time with blue collar tweakers in Hawaii; Aryan Nation troopers in Idaho; and near-fatally hip heroin addicts on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We meet the Reverend Al Sharpton at a time, early in his career, when this important civil rights figure and mainstream chat show host was vilified and feared by many Americans of all races. A road trip across country brings me eyeball to eyeball with a number of America’s smartest men (and one woman) and demonstrates that having a super high IQ can be as much of a handicap as an advantage. Life, it seems, can be just as challenging on either end of the bell curve. A trip across Thailand brings me together with dozens of American military veterans who’d decided, after the Vietnam war, that they’d rather set down roots in the Land of Smiles than return home. Life as an ex pat: You’re home and yet you ain’t.
We attend the “Superbowl of Rodeo” with the world’s winningest professional cowboy, a deep dive into red-state values and the condition of the American Western Ideal. We meet Charlie Van Dyke, 650-pounds, a fat man in a low-fat world. Bill Hicks, a comedian destined for mainstream stardom until tragedy struck. And NBA lightning rod Kobe Bryant, who lifted the craft of basketball into a compelling art . . . and so beautifully made the tricky transition to next chapter . . . before leaving the earth suddenly and way too soon.It was my giddy personal privilege to spend more than a week with Kobe and his wife, Vanessa, to report the piece. Included also is an appreciation I wrote for The Atlantic on the night of his death.
I have also been privileged to add into this collection, with the paid permission of the Washington Post, six of the feature stories I wrote during my six years at that great paper, where my career began in 1978. (As of this writing, I have completed paid journalism assignments in each of the past six decades.) Unlike the other stories in this book, all of which have been expanded and refurbished since first publication, I leave these stories untouched. (According to the terms of my agreement with the Post, I’m not allowed to change anything. Nor would I want to.) Over the years, teaching young writers, I have often assigned these pieces to grad students. It’s good for them to get the perspective: This was my work when I was your age.
In this world of rapidly changing media—remember, the first televisions were introduced in 1927, less than a century ago—it is has been my good fortune to have plied my trade during the golden age of magazines, when ads were plentiful, books were thick, issues came 12 times a year, and editors thought nothing of letting you spend three weeks living with a 650-pound man, six weeks with a crack gang, or three months circling the globe in search of a Hollywood actor. And they didn’t mind paying you a decent enough wage that you could put copious amounts of time into the rest of the process: transcribing, additional research, writing, editing, fact-checking, lawyering, and more. For that I am truly grateful.
For the people who shared their lives with me so I could write these stories . . . for the editors who gave me these assignments and the magazines that gave me the resources and a platform . . . for the readers who spent their time and money . . . for the loved ones who nurtured and encouraged me as I pursued my passion . . . for my son, who taught me as much as all the stories I’ve written . . . and for so much more, I give thanks.
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Journey to the Heart of Whiteness
TO SOME AMERICANS—including freemen, survivalists, tax resisters, home schoolers, militia members, right-to-lifers, white supremacists, libertarians, Aryan Nations troopers, Christian patriots, Evangelicals and even everyday citizens with jobs and kids and mortgages—America is going to hell in a handbasket. Many are flocking to Idaho.
The dog came charging out of the shadows of the little orchard by the barn, a dun-colored blur churning up leaves and sod, making a beeline for my car. He threw himself at the driver’s door, rocking the fancy suspension of the rented four-wheel drive, snarling and barking and spewing foamy spittle, raking the glass with his nails.
Thankfully, they’d been considerate enough to mention Hans when I’d made my appointment. Wheeling into the driveway at the two tall, whitewashed poles that stood watch over the entrance to the compound, I’d rolled up my windows as a precaution. Juddering past a grove where a flock of turkeys pecked the grass beneath a hand-painted sign displaying a coat of arms with a crown and sword and shield, I double-checked the electric locks.
“Hans don’t cotton much to strangers,” the reverend’s assistant had said. He’d also said the reverend was “very, very, very” busy and that before I talked with him, I should come out and pick up a press kit. The kit cost $150. Cash only, please. If, after doing the reading, I still had questions, I could request an audience with the Reverend Richard Butler himself, the 78-year-old founder of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and its political arm, the Aryan Nations.
The assistant, a guy named Jerry, had a childlike voice, reminiscent of Lennie’s in Of Mice and Men. He gave elaborate directions to the compound, two notepad pages full of landmarks and descriptions to get me to a place that ended up being a right turn off a major highway and two more right turns onto clearly marked roads. Jerry concluded his directions with the warning about Hans, a little story about the time they had tried to build a cage to hold the prize purebred German shepherd, imported from the Fatherland to sire a superrace of guard dogs. First they’d tried a Cyclone fence with razor wire. Hans simply opened the latch. Then they secured the gate with thick rope. Hans chewed it through in minutes. The final solution, proposed by one of the kinsmen, as the members are called, was an electrified fence surrounded by a moat. Hans tore the whole deal down, taking the full charge, shorting out the electrical system of the compound. Since then, whenever that kinsman comes to visit, Hans goes into a lather. “He remembers that guy, he knows his car and his smell, and he don’t like him. He’s got his number,” said Jerry.
I couldn’t decide if the story was apocryphal or not. (Though I would later hear about the time a prank caller authorized the vet who was treating the dog for a minor ailment to go ahead and neuter him while he was there.) Either way, I did what Jerry had instructed: stayed in the car, waited for an escort.
I lit a cigarette, turned up the radio, tried to ignore all the barking and growling, the fur and gums and yellow teeth sliming the window just to my left, the nails scratching and screeching against the glass.
It was a beautiful fall day in Hayden Lake, in northern Idaho, an area they call the Panhandle—a thin, majestic strip of fir trees and mountains and deep glacial lakes between Montana, Washington and Canada. The sky was a color I remembered from grade school, when we mixed our own paints from powder, a pure royal blue, with thick, cottony storybook clouds and long, transecting jet trails glowing with the deep golden light of the afternoon sun. On all sides in the distance stood light of the afternoon sun. On all sides in the distance stood bristly moose-backed mountains, green and gold with the season—a little slice of heaven, Hans notwithstanding.
A half hour from the compound, north up the dual-lane highway, is the town of Sandpoint, new home to O.J. Simpson trial villain Mark Fuhrman. Detective Fuhrman’s offense, boiled down, was using the word nigger, being caught on tape using the word nigger and, one supposes, possessing the feelings associated with using that word. Polite people, official people, correct people, idealistic people, believe our society has grown past that word and other words like it. Realistic people know otherwise. Many still use those words, and they mean them, too, maybe more these days than ever. In that way, those infamous Fuhrman tapes were like the Rodney King police beating video. They recorded an ugly piece of truth no one wanted to admit.
A half hour farther north, up the same highway, is Ruby Ridge, where, in 1992, government snipers killed Randy Weaver’s son, the boy’s dog and Weaver’s wife, shooting her in the face through a window while she held their infant daughter in her arms. The Weavers were Evangelical Christians, members of a sect known as Legalists, who believe the Bible is the literal word of God. They also believed the apocalypse was imminent. They had fled small-town Iowa to their wooded mountaintop to wait out the end time.
Today Ruby Ridge stands as a symbol to millions of white people across the nation, a precursor of the Waco Seige (1993), the Oklahoma City bombing (1995) , the Olympic Park bombing (1996)—the first skirmish in the civil wars they believe will someday rage across the land. To these people—including freemen, survivalists, tax resisters, home schoolers, militia members, right-to-lifers, white supremacists, libertarians, Christian patriots, Evangelicals and even everyday citizens with jobs and kids and mortgages—America is going to hell in a handbasket full of colored people and government regulations. They see crime, drugs, decay, disease, unchecked immigration, increasing social and economic stratification. They wish for a safer, more wholesome life, one governed and protected by traditional American values—meaning, to them, those of the Founding Fathers, white Christians.
The Aryan Nations compound is a fairly rustic affair, twenty-five acres settled twenty-three years ago by the Reverend Butler and his neo-Nazi followers. Someday, if Butler’s dreams are realized, pure-blooded white people—an estimated 33 million Americans who claim roots in the twelve Aryan nations—will abandon most of the continental United States to live in an all-white republic in the Pacific Northwest. Only whites will be allowed to vote, own property, conduct business, bear arms. There will be no taxation. Loans will be given without interest. Jews and other hybrids will be repatriated from the territory. Hayden Lake will be the capital.
Hans piped down after a while and retreated to a watchful position about five feet from my car. I turned off the radio, cracked the window. I was parked on a circular parade ground, beneath an empty flagpole. To my left was a little clapboard house. Inside, the reverend’s wife lay dying of cancer. She’d moved here with her husband from the conventional suburban sprawl of Orange County, California. Together, they and their children and Butler’s followers were among the first in the postmodern wave of white settlers. For better or for worse, it can be said the Reverend Butler was somewhat responsible for the exodus into this new promised land. That is why I was seeking counsel from the reverend. Sometimes there is truth buried at the fringe.
Behind the house were the orchard and the barn, a few cottages, some junk cars, a church, a thirty-foot watchtower. Just in front of me was a one-story frame building that appeared to be an office. There were signs hanging all over the door: BEWARE OF DOG. WHITES ONLY. In a window hung a poster: “God has a plan for homosexuals. AIDS is only the beginning.”
The wind through the pine needles made a sound like rushing water, ebbing and flowing. As I waited, wondering when the hell Jerry was going to appear and rescue me from Hans, my mind drifted to home. At that very moment, not far from my house in Washington, D.C., another man of the cloth, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, had gathered a million black men on the mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol. I’d been in the Panhandle for about a week now and hadn’t seen one black face. No Hispanics, no blacks, no Asians. There were white folks working in the restaurants, even in the Thai, Chinese and Mexican places. White folks patrolled the streets, mowed lawns, cleaned hotel rooms, played basketball in the courtyard at the county jail, walked home from high school listening to rap music on boom boxes, wearing backward baseball caps and oversized jeans. Like the sign on the highway had said: IDAHO IS WHAT AMERICA USED TO BE.
Over the past week, I’d noticed, I was drawing stares. With my olive skin and deep nostrils, my shaved head and earring, I was something of a sore thumb. People on the streets had this way of circumnavigating me. Women in line at McDonald’s eyed me and hugged their purses. Kids stared at me and giggled. I shrugged it off. I wore a baseball cap. It didn’t matter what they thought of me. I was here to find out about them.
Had my (now ex-)wife been along, I know she would not have just shrugged. Her dad is Creole, born in Morrow, Louisiana, a town named for its Klan leader. His grandparents were a Frenchwoman; the jet-black son of a slave; a half-black, half-Cherokee woman; and a full Cherokee man. My wife’s mom, who emigrated from England as a young girl, is the daughter of Russian Jews. She was recently divorced from a Mexican man and is now living in a lesbian partnership. I, too, am the product of Lithuanian Jews. Both my parents grew up in the small town American South, My dad dodged rocks and epithets. My mother still bears the emotional scars of living in a town of blonde, pug-nosed 4-H queens. My son is also olive, a beautiful testimony to genetic mixture, with a halo of curly hair, his grandpa’s high forehead, his mom’s almond eyes, his dad’s full bottom lip and talent for craftiness.
To my wife, and to many who agree, the absence of color in America indicates the presence of racism.
Proud as I am of my heritage, liberal as I am in my choice of politics and recreation and residence, I have to admit I share some things in common with the various Idaho extremists: The future scares me too. Though I live ten blocks from the White House, I can buy crack on my corner. Our hundred-year-old town house has iron bars and electric alarms, an attached garage with a mechanized door. When my wife and I go to dinner four blocks away, we drive. The wail of sirens, the staccato pop of automatic-weapons fire, the jangled arguments of street people: These are the night sounds that filter through my bedroom window. I have already begun saving money for my toddler son’s education. Sending him to even a public preschool seems out of the question. Some nights I lie awake wondering: Where will he ride his bike when he gets older? Where will he play ball? Do I build a caged enclosure on my roof where he can romp unmolested?
At the Aryan Nations compound, the office door finally opened, and a big-bellied, pink-cheeked man came down the three stairs. He was in his sixties with white hair, wore a brown uniform shirt with a leather sash hooked from belt to shoulder, kind of like the SS in old Nazi movies. He took Hans by the collar stashed him in an old VW bus, then made his way back to my vehicle.
I rolled down the window, waved in a familiar manner.
He scrutinized me with watery blue eyes through thick glasses. “Are you white?” he asked.
By his voice, by his generally befuddled mien, I guessed this was Jerry, the reverend’s assistant. According to Aryan Nations philosophy, white people are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites, in direct line from Adam and Eve. Jews, they believe, descended from Cain, who was born not of Adam and Eve but of Eve and the Serpent. Cain’s children fled into the woods, mated with the beasts and produced the nonwhite “mud races.” To Jerry, then, I was a mud person, a miscegenator, married to a mongrel, father of a mongrel. And I was a Hymietown-based liberal member of the “Jews-media,” one of the conspiratorial arms of the Zionist Occupational Government that was leading the country to ruin.
I smiled and held up my palms and inspected them, and then turned my hands over and inspected some more “Looks white to me,” I joked. “What do you think?”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Jerry, quite seriously.
“OK, OK, I’m Italian,” I said. “Is that white?”
“Oh yes, of course,” said Jerry, but I knew the answer before I’d asked. The twelve Aryan nations are Holland, Spain, Iceland, Great Britain, the United States, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany, France and Italy. With my big nose and general swarthiness, I knew claiming Italian ancestry was my one shot at passing for Aryan. If I was going to learn anything, I had to get behind the lines. A little white lie to gain acceptance.
“So what can we do for you today?” asked Jerry.
“I came for the press kit, remember?”
“Right. Right,” said Jerry. “Did you bring the cash?”
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