Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

Bachelor Party Confidential

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

Two strippers, a dwarf, an S&M clown, a Vegas bouncer and a pair of wedding planners. Not the start of a dirty joke, but in fact just a handful of the more than 100 people from all over the globe I talked to for my book, Bachelor Party Confidential: A Real Life-Peek Behind the Closed-Door Tradition. In my journey to dig into this incredible, timeless, messy tradition, I met men from different generations, classes and backgrounds. I spoke with religious grooms, wary brides and the fathers who love them. Each offered a unique point of view and, together, their stories revealed the first full portrait of this secret ritual.

I was never looking to blow the whistle on this rare chance for male-bonding, nor was I planning to defend it: I just wanted to know what the bachelor party tradition meant to each of them, how it’s affected their relationships and how it’s changed over the years.

I offered total anonymity to everyone. In return, they served up painful, poignant, secret, and salacious stories—stories I sensed that many had been dying to tell for years. Here are five excerpts to whet your appetite. Pour yourself a drink and prepare, as they say in the wedding biz, for better or for worse.

Check out this Flickr stream of bachelor party photos.

Have a bachelor party story? Tell SMITH

The Stories:

The Original Bachelor
The Vegas Strip Club Manager
The Born-Again Best Man
The Remorseful Best Man
The Buck’s Prank

Henry B. partied in 1922

While every other story in the book is from firsthand interviews, this piece of history comes from the archive of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration (WPA). This WPA interview with HENRY B., who was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, “in a basement” in 1898, suggests that guys have been having a sex-tinged last hurrah for some time. And that your great-granddad may have partied more than you suspected.

I came through [World War I] without a scratch. When I was demobilized, I returned to Woonsocket. I went to work in the Woonsocket Rubber Co. as a trucker. This job only paid twenty-two dollars [a week], but I was compensated in another way, for while working there I met the girl that later became my wife.

In 1922 the mills started running full time and I was able to obtain employment as a weaver in the Montrose Mill. Shortly after I started working there, I married Alice. I was twenty-four years old and [she] was twenty.

Two nights before the wedding, my friends held a stag party for me. They hired a hall, and about one hundred men gathered there to celebrate my marriage. Father Didion, my pastor, who knew everything that happened in the parish, arrived at the hall early and, to the consideration of the other guests, he sat down and started eating. After the meal, he made a short speech as to the duties of a married man. He then proposed a toast to the young couple and showed that he was the soul of discretion by announcing that it was getting late and he had some duties to attend to at the parish house. Then he left. Everyone in the hall felt relieved, as most of the acts that they had hired in Boston were of the ’strip-tease’ type and it was not possible to have them performed while good Father was in the hall.

Lola R. has witnessed hundreds of bachelor parties

Of course, some bachelor parties are exactly as you imagine: Vegas, strippers, drugs and alcohol. LOLA R. is a cocktail manager at one of the most popular gentlemen’s clubs in the city and she talked to me about what she’s seen behind the curtains of her club’s legendary VIP rooms.

I work in a VIP area. They’re private booths that have curtains completely around them. I’ve walked in on all different levels of undress. And when people say there’s no sex in these rooms, well, they either haven’t spent enough money or they haven’t met a stripper that’s good enough at hiding it.

I’ve probably seen more than 500 bachelor parties. I don’t really like them. Not to sound shallow, but at this point, being in Vegas for the past three years, I’ve seen the amount of money that goes through this town—and bachelor parties just don’t spend the kind of money that other people do! They’re on a budget in a big way, but they want the VIP treatment.

When bachelors first get here, they all say, “I don’t really go to strip clubs” and “I’m only here because my friends made me come.” I can’t tell you how many times a night I hear that. A few shots down the road and all of a sudden they’re professionals: they’re getting dances, they’re going into private areas, and it’s a whole different story.

We had this one bachelor party—it wasn’t very big, only about eight guys—but it was the guy getting married, his dad and grandfather, and his father-in-law-to-be and his grandfather-in-law-to-be. They all ended up in a VIP booth. And I walked back there and I’m watching grandpa feel up a stripper. I was like, “Are you kidding? Isn’t this just a little weird? Does anybody else have a problem with it?” I really think it’s that whole male-bonding, loyalty thing. And it’s like your acceptance into the family. But I wouldn’t be able to sit next to my mother-in-law and be able to get a lap dance.

I am actually divorced. I was pretty young when I got married. My whole thing was, “You’re going to have strippers, that’s cool. But if I find out you slept with them, the wedding’s off.” I don’t think I would react that way now… I tried to do the whole controlling no-strippers-and-you-can’t-do-this-and-you-can’t-do-that routine.

But it all went on: They ended up having four strippers, got a hotel room, games were played. And everything else that I said I didn’t want to happen, happened. I think there’s nothing that you can do to prevent it. No matter what the groom says, his friends are still gonna do it; there isn’t a friend in the world that loves him enough to forego a bachelor party.

Ultimately, I do think bachelor parties are worse in Vegas because you have that ad campaign: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” People forget that some of us actually live here, and have lives and kids and families. And being a woman in Vegas, people automatically think you are a prostitute; I’m propositioned constantly.

Peter M. planned a Christian Bachelor Party

PETER M., a preacher’s son, grew up in the church. As the pastor that runs the Men’s Ministry at the Midwestern megachurch helmed by this father, Peter is sometimes asked for advice about bachelor parties. He tends to quote two pieces of scripture: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” (Corinthians 15:33) and “The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41) Explains the pastor, “If it compromises your morals, you need to get out of there.” He didn’t have a bachelor party when he got married nine years ago. “I was twenty-one and I was a virgin,” he says. “I didn’t need a bachelor party to remind me what I was leaving—I couldn’t wait to leave it, man.” A few years ago, the bachelor party novice had to plan one for his cousin.

My cousin was a little bit of a late bloomer: he didn’t get married until he was twenty-eight. And I planned his bachelor party; I wanted to do something that was special for him. I didn’t study the whole bachelor party thing; I just began to think, “How do you throw a bachelor party for a guy that believes in God?”

I decided to center the entire party around what he likes—obviously not from a carnal standpoint. My cousin likes to eat, so we took him to a Japanese steakhouse; he loves to golf, we took him golfing; he loves movies, so we rented his three favorites; he likes to play cards—this is maybe where you get into a grey area—so we took him to a casino for an hour and a half.

The fact that I took him to a casino was a big deal. For text-studied Christians, obviously there’s no gambling. But I wasn’t trying to be religious and I wasn’t trying to be legalistic and predictable. That’s one thing that always drives me nuts: when you have Christians that get together and everything’s got to be a scripture, three points and a poem. Just have fun for a change! And that’s why I did it for him… It was just a fun day with his most favorite people, and he’ll never forget it.

That’s the thing about the Christian bachelor party: you remember what you’ve done and you don’t have to worry about telling people what you did. There was no drinking or carnal or questionable activity involved.

I think the cliche bachelor party is very disappointing; I don’t see what’s enjoyable about getting a person you call a friend all liquored up, wasting your money and watching him consume something—that being alcohol, that being a lady, that being a lap dance—the night or the weekend before he’s getting married.

You can say the same thing about us going to the casino—maybe mediocrity ruled. But I put together the party so quick that I didn’t have time to bring in a dealer and say, “Let’s play with Oreos” or something goofy or cheesy. So, I thought, “Maybe going this one time won’t hurt us.”

Brent P. planned a stag that ended badly

Maybe it shouldn’t be shocking that injuries and deaths occur at bachelor parties. In the last year alone, I have read stories about fatal car crashes, savage beatings and a deadly stabbing. And Sean Bell was killed after police shot him 55 times when he and his friends were leaving a strip club the night before he was supposed to get married. BRENT P. tries not to dwell on what happened at his buddy’s bachelor party more than two decades ago. But he decided to talk with me, in part, because he hopes his story will serve as a warning to others.

One of my best friends from high school was getting married to a girl he had met at the seafood restaurant that we all worked at in Phoenix.

I decided to throw his bachelor party and we were going to go to Las Vegas. So I got a bus… and we were gonna leave in the morning, to have a night in Vegas to party and come back the next day. On the way, we planned to stop at a lake.

So we were on the bus, and you know, we had beers in coolers. One of the employees who worked with us was a younger busboy named Tommy. I was unaware that he’d gotten into the coolers and started drinking.

We get to this lake and they have a water park with slides and ropes and things you can jump off of. It’s a hot day and the cicadas are going. We start swimming around and Tommy jumps in headfirst. Somebody had seen him jump in, but it didn’t occur to anybody that he didn’t come up. A few minutes go by and the groom’s brother says, “Where’s Tommy?”

We can’t find him and we start thinking maybe he’s underwater. So people started diving down, feeling the murky bottom. And it took a few minutes and finally someone who wasn’t with our group pulled him up by the wrist and said, “I got him.” They called the paramedics, who took maybe twenty minutes to get there, because we’re in the middle of the desert. The paramedics came and somebody said they got a heartbeat, and everybody cheered. They took Tommy to the nearest hospital… and we followed in the bus. We waited around the hospital for a couple of hours, and they finally came out and told us that he was dead.

Two of the schmucks that were on the bus said, “What do we do? Keep going to Vegas? Tommy would have wanted us to.” And I looked at these guys and I said, “You’re out of your minds. We’re not going to Vegas, somebody just died. We’ve got to go home and somebody’s got to tell his parents.”

So we got on the bus and we went back to Phoenix. Eventually Tommy’s parents were told and he was buried. But nothing ever happened: they didn’t sue the lake or anything like that… It crosses my mind every once in a while, but it didn’t get to me, or haunt me, or anything like that; it’s just a sad episode. It shouldn’t have happened.

Liam K. does it Aussie style

Each country and community puts its own twist on the bachelor party ritual. The centerpiece of the Australian bucks party, for instance, is a sometimes elaborate, somewhat sadistic prank. Thirty-one-year-old LIAM K., who admits, “I look forward to the bucks more than the wedding,” told recounts one such prank that quickly became a staple of my cocktail-party repertoire.

The most memorable one was for a guy I play rugby with. We all met at 10 AM and started by smoking dope. We had already decided to play “pub golf” around Sydney; (I suspect you don’t know what that is, mate). There’s eighteen pubs, and each pub has a different par to it, like a par three or a par four. You go into each pub for twenty minutes or so. And if it’s a par three, you have to drink three beers while you’re there. But if you get four beers in you, then you go one-under par. And it’s a competition to see who can have the lowest score.

By the end of the eighteen holes—I mean pubs—it’s pretty severe. For this bucks, we had a bus taking us from one to the other. By about 7 PM the groom was unconscious. The normal thing would have been to strip him and leave him somewhere. But the best man said, “Why don’t we take him to the hospital and put a cast on his arm and pretend he’s broken it and we’ll tell him the next day that it’s a joke.” By the time we got to the hospital, it turned into, “Fuck it, we’re gonna put a cast on his whole leg.” From his ankle to the top of his hip. And because one of the guys we play rugby with is a doctor at the hospital, they let us do it.

The groom woke up the next day, and we told him he fell down the stairs at a pub and broke his leg. He didn’t know it wasn’t broken, because his leg was in the cast and he couldn’t move it.

The wedding was two or three days later, so he went through the wedding on crutches with a cast. For his honeymoon, he went to Fiji. He was there for ten days and didn’t swim because he figured he couldn’t get his cast wet.

We told him when he got back. He didn’t talk to us for a long time. We’re still on bad terms with his missus—and that was five fuckin’ years ago. He laughs about it now, but he can still get pissed if we all laugh about it too much.

Text copyright © 2007 by David Boyer. Published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Want your very own copy of BACHELOR PARTY CONFIDENTIAL? Buy it now

Have a bachelor party story? Tell SMITH

My Ex: A Photo Essay By Lauren Fleishman

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

A New Yorker to the core, Lauren Fleishman’s work has appeared in The Fader, New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, The Sunday Times, Time, and ELLE. But it was her incredibly personal photo essay, You Would Have Loved Him Too, that caught SMITH’s eye. “The series is about the loss of a relationship with a person that I met when I was very young,” says the Brooklyn-based photographer. “He was very attractive and charismatic—everyone loved him and wanted to be around him. That’s where the title comes from.” Using her own photographs and letters he had written her, Lauren created a book which contained images and collages chronicling the affair. “I’ve always kept journals and this gallery started in that style when the relationship ended.”

Named one of the Photo District News’ 30 young photographers to watch in 2003, Lauren is now a finalist for the American Photography 23 and an award recipient in the 2007 PDN Annual for her series, Sixteen Candles, which appeared in Time.

Lauren talked to SMITH about her craft.

Can you tell me your name, the brand of camera you’re using, and how long you’ve been taking pictures?

I have been taking pictures since my sophomore year in high school. We had a photography program that started us in black and white and then moved into color. It was fantastic because we could develop our own color film.

I use a lot of different cameras depending on the job, but I started with 35mm. Now, I mostly use the Hasselblad H1 and the Contax 645. For digital, I like the Canon 5D.

You Would Have Loved Him Too is a very personal and compelling photo essay. Why did you decide to capture this moment in your life?

I had been in a small town in France with him and I left for Paris alone, which is when I started to put the images together. I did it because I thought it was an important point in my life. I used my own photographs with his handwriting. I would work in this hotel room where I was staying and paste everything together in a book and make pages. The original consists of a combination of 60 images and collages.

What has the response been like from friends and colleagues to the series?

The series was first edited and published by Whitney Lawson at Nerve. She was the one that came up with the name for the gallery. There was a comments page and most people thanked me for being honest. Someone wrote something about how the work was mediocre and self-obsessed and I can respect that opinion. I work mostly as a magazine photographer and I would probably be really hurt if someone said that about my editorial work. But these pictures came from a different place, so they will always hold something for me. I continue to show the story because people seem to respond to it, but it is so much harder for me to show personal work.

What makes a good image to you?

Any image that makes you connect with the subject or the place.

What do you consider off-limits to shoot?

I don’t think anything specific is off limits to shoot, but you have to respect boundaries.

What’s one fish that got away?

I was sitting in a one-room Amish schoolhouse with about 10 older members of the community. It was 8 o’clock at night in the middle of winter with nothing but the gas lamps for light. I felt like I had stepped back in time. The Amish typically don’t allow themselves to be photographed, and on that night I was asked not to take pictures.

From whom, what, or where do you derive inspiration?

People inspire me. My job allows me access into so many peoples homes, so many different lives. The best way I can describe it would be like when a friend introduces you to something new that turns out to be fantastic. Except in my case, this person is someone you’d probably otherwise never meet, which maybe even makes it more extraordinary. Being a freelancer can be really lonely and I need those moments to make me feel normal and connected.

What’s the picture you’d most like to take?

I hope I know it when I see it.

If anyone could take a picture of you, who would it be?

This is a tough question, but strangely enough it would probably be my father. I remember when he would photograph the family and he would step back and insist on always taking a vertical [shot], but the pictures would always be crooked.

Where are you happiest taking photographs?

In Northern Indiana.

More from Lauren Fleishman.

Also check out more “My Ex” stories.

Staging War: Back Home with Sean Huze

Friday, April 13th, 2007

Michael Slenske's last Back Home From Iraq feature was on Herold Noel.

“As veterans we often get our experience defined for us. For me the goal of it is to provide a creative outlet for veterans, for us to put work out there, and for the community to see it and get a better grasp on what it really means. To see that we’ve got a lot more to offer than just bullets.”

What does a Hollywood extra do after his time as an enlisted soldier ends? Stage war, of course. “I grew up in theater and had what you might consider an atypical path to becoming a Marine Corps infantryman,” says Sean Huze, an actor who joined the Corps at his local recruiting station off Sunset Boulevard on September 12, 2001. No shock then that since his 2003 demobilization from Iraq with the 2nd Light Armored Battalion, the warrior-thespian has returned to the stage in full force. In the past two years, he’s penned two raved-about plays drawn from his military experience, The Sandstorm and Weasel. He recently formed an all-veterans theater company in Los Angeles, VetStage, which boasts 22 members, including vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. Among his crew is actor (and former Army grunt) Ed Asner, who was originally slated to appear in a screen version of Huze’s new play, The Wolf.

The story, which draws on everything from news headlines to Huze’s intense personal combat experiences, has been hailed critically and given him cred in Hollywood. Huze plays the lead role of Joey Dallriva, a PTSD-suffering vet attempting to navigate the horrors of the homefront—alongside military parents coming to grips with losing their children and a Catholic priest having a crisis of faith—while chained up in a psych ward after participating in a Haditha-like rampage in Baghdad.

huze2.jpgIn December, shortly after incorporating VetStage, the ex-Marine corporal spent a week shooting a part in Crash director Paul Haggis’ upcoming Iraq war flick In The Valley of Elah. And after reading about VetStage in the L.A. Times, screenwriter Bobby Moresco, approached Huze and helped turn out a star-studded, sold-out crowd for the March premiere of The Wolf. Shortly after the gala, SMITH caught up with the infantryman-turned-playwright to see the advantages of tackling war from his new high ground.

Why start VetStage? Did you have a model or major influence this sort of “theater of war” concept?
Back in the day, the Vietnam guys had something called VETCo. VetStage member Dan Lauria was part of it. So I knew Vietnam guys had done something like it 20, 30 years ago, but I think there’s certainly a need for it. I just wanted to get it done, to put it out there. Other than the stipulation of the themes and that the theater company consists of prior military, the model of it is that of any other theater company.

You’ve got some older vets on board, so I’m assuming service in Iraq or Afghanistan is not required for membership?
Correct, it’s prior military. Period. I thought about making it exclusively for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but that’s almost like saying this is not a place for you if you served in Kuwait, or if you served Stateside, or if you were involved in the first Gulf War, or Vietnam, of Korea and not involved in the current operations. I didn’t want to invalidate any veteran’s experience. I feel like the more perspectives we can get, the better when you’re talking about creating. The only requirement for membership is being prior military regardless of whether you served in garrison or combat or both.

Did you find a lot of vets were approaching you to participate in theater?
No. But I also recognized as I got some distance between the time I wrote The Sandstorm and the year and a half before we put it up for the first time how much of a healing process and catharsis I personally experienced being able to express it creatively. And looking around and seeing these struggles in some non-positive outlets that I think a lot of vets turn to to cope, I realized this is something I’d like to make available to other veterans, regardless of what their theater experience level is. The response that I received initially was primarily from veterans that were already into the arts, who already had some sort of inclination to be involved in it, but not exclusively. There are a couple guys who’ve never acted before who are getting involved.

How did your debut on March 23rd go?
Tremendous turn out. Some pretty big names and a lot of veterans were out there, and the general public just turned out in force to support it. We had Jonathan Tucker, the star of The Black Donnellys, who was also in the Paul Haggis film with me, Kirsten Bell, who plays Veronica Mars, Ed Asner, Dan Lauria, Patricia Foulkrod, Paul Rieckhoff, and we played to a packed house. I know I’m forgetting people. It really was an incredible event. Hollywood is a community often demonized, I think, as unpatriotic or a place that doesn’t support troops. But they’ve been overwhelmingly supportive of this endeavor more than any other single industry that I can think of. Right now we’re announced through May 6, but with the response we’re getting we’re already looking at an extension.

What was it like shooting with Paul Haggis?
Incredible. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the project or not, but it just reflects a lot of what my writing does as well—that the first casualty of war is humanity, and I feel the script really embodies that. I only shot for a week. I’m not a lead. But to be a part of that project and to get to be directed by an Oscar winner while doing scenes with another Oscar winner, Tommy Lee Jones, was a pretty incredible experience.

What was your role?
Captain Jim Osher. But it’s pretty integral to the plot so I can’t really talk about it right now.

Do you feel you’re getting more roles now than you did before the war?
I think if somebody’s got a military script I do have a name that’s recognizable in that genre or niche now.

How would you gauge the overall participation of Hollywood community in general?
huze1.jpg Very interested and lots of offers to help. Showing up is a big deal. Wrangling celebrities to attend an event—it sounds like a minor thing, but it’s hard to get people to commit to coffee, so I’m really excited. You have guys, prior military vets like Dan Lauria and Ed Asner getting involved and being able to reach out. Joe Mantegna and Lesley Ann Warren have been really encouraging. I think a lot of people in this community really give a shit. It’s something creative so it’s something they relate to in that regard, and it gives them an opportunity to be supportive of a community they identify with.

What’s Ed Asner’s role in VetStage?
Kind of as a mentor. He’s a member of the troop and it certainly means a lot to these guys to see a face they grew up with that’s also a vet. A lot of people don’t know that about Ed. He’s known for a lot of things, but having served a couple years in the Army is not one of them. I think it means a lot to him, and I think it’s inspiring for [VetStage members] to see someone with that similar background that’s gone on and achieved a very real level of success in this industry. Ed’s got, I guess, about a dozen Emmys, a half-dozen Golden Globes, and a half-dozen SAG Awards, and when he was our age he was just another grunt in the Army, so I think that his involvement really serves to inspire the other guys.

And he was slated to have a role in the movie version that never came to be, right?
The company that had the option on the film didn’t get it off the ground so their option expired, but it gave me a great opportunity. It’s funny, when you initially think something didn’t work out, but after a little time passes you gain some perspective and realize it worked out exactly as it should have. This gave me a chance to go back in and do a lot more script-development; I think I have an infinitely better story.

And Bobby Moresco?
He’s conducting writing and acting workshops. They’re free for VetStage members and the general public pays money to attend, with all the proceeds going to VetStage. He’s done two workshops—one for actors, one for writers—and he’s part of the host committee and really did a lot to get the word out. It is L.A., it is Hollywood, and to get people interested and excited, you know having some recognizable faces in the crowd certainly helps. Bobby did a lot to help make that happen, and he also made sure people paid. A lot of celebrities feel that at other events their presence, just being there, was their part. I feel really grateful that they not only showed up but they financially contributed while they were there.

How many vets have come to you with scripts?
huze3.jpg I’ve had about a half-dozen script submissions from veterans. We’ve really been focused on getting our first production up, which just opened, so I didn’t have the time to script-read, but we’re going to get caught up on that now. With the Bobby Moresco workshop we did in March we found about four or five veterans from that. One of the first veterans I didn’t know who joined the group is a Marine Corps reservist from New York who just got back from his second tour in Iraq; he heard of me from The Sandstorm. And another guy, Brian Seuffert, is a fellow Marine who came to L.A. to get involved in the industry. He tracked me down, fired me an email, and jumped right in.

Is there an overarching political goal with VetStage?
As a nonprofit we don’t endorse any policy or candidate, but I think the most important thing whether someone is Republican or Democrat, political, not political, whatever—if they’re prior military this is a good place for them to sort it out and define their experience. As veterans we often get our experience defined for us. For me the goal of it is to provide a creative outlet for veterans, for us to put work out there, and for the community to see it and get a better grasp on what it really means, To see that we’ve got a lot more to offer than just bullets.

You were also one of the subjects of The Ground Truth, which was shortlisted for a Best Documentary Oscar. What was that experience like?
I’m very pleased to have been a part of it, I’m just very glad I could lend my voice to affect some change. I’m very proud for Patricia Foulkrod and Focus Features. I know a lot of people who hosted Ground Truth screening parties, and a lot of people have seen it. I hope that all of these projects cumulatively become this deafening roar that the country has to respond to and pay attention to, because we are responsible as a society when we send men and women off to war. We are responsible for them. And I think these projects that really drive that point home are important to be in the American consciousness. I’m certainly proud that I’m part of a film that I think does that.

Do you think people are watching enough of these films?
They will eventually. If I didn’t believe that, I’d go sell car insurance or something. Make more money and work less hours. Paul Haggis said it best when he accepted his Academy Award, and it’s probably one of my favorite quotes from Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to be help up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” I do believe that we can be a hammer and that we can affect change.

What is it about stage that helps to better talk about this war?
I think stage provides a really intimate experience between the actors and the audience; it’s almost participatory, whether you break the fourth wall or not. They’re right there. You know the majority of productions are put up in really small theaters, whether it’s Equity Showcase in New York or 99-seat theaters in L.A. and that affords the audience a really personal experience with what they’re witnessing and I think there’s a lot of power in that. One of the advantages of stage is that you can put together a really great stage play for about $30,000. You can’t make a good movie for that. It affords some talented people with a voice and message to get it out there very quickly.

Is there something about not being able to run away?
Yeah, they got you. You’re there. You can’t pause it and take a smoke break and shake it off.

I read you’re considering doing some David Rabe material for VetStage?
We are considering one of his plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, for later on in the season, but I would love to be in touch with David personally. Particularly at VetStage I want to have world premieres of veteran-authored work. I would consider it a privilege for VetStage to do a world premiere with David Rabe. Put it in the magazine and maybe his people will contact me?

What else is in the works?
We’re looking at things like John DiFusco’s Tracers, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, possibly revisiting a piece from the Vietnam era, and putting up all veterans in a cast. I really am looking for world premieres. I want to get to the point where it’s all world premieres, all veteran authors. That’s important to me.

Conversation: Mike Finkel and The “Alternadad,” aka Neal Pollack

Monday, March 26th, 2007

“I just wanted people to get a sense of what it’s really like, without any frippery or myth. The poop and pee stuff; the tired parent stuff; the trading sex for getting up with the kid stuff—that’s things that all parents have to deal with.”

So: You’re smart and creative and over-educated and under-funded. We know that. Overall, your life is pretty damn good. We know that, too. But what we don’t know is the answer to the ultimate question: Will having a child shatter all this goodness, or augment it? Neal Pollack, who has made a career out of writing wry, witty essays with a tone of mock solipsism (it is mock, right?), has attempted to wrestle with this question in his latest book, Alternadad.

I’m the father of a 15-month-old, and an aspiring alternadad myself. That is, someone who can enjoy a fulfilling life and, at the same time, act as a stellar parent. But, admittedly, I’m a little lost (and my daughter is about to have company). I decided to talk to an expert, albeit one with no official expertise, just a funny Jewish writer type guy who happened to write a book with a pierced duckie on the cover. In other words, a guy I can relate to. I phoned Pollack at his home in Los Angeles for guidance on fatherhood, what to expect when you’re expecting a second kid, and instructions on how to use the ultimate pot-smoking machine, the so-called Silver Surfer. —Michael Finkel

MF: I read your book with a background soundtrack of Elmo’s World—that’s what my daughter was watching. There’s now bits of pureed carrots on several pages. That’s what my daughter was eating.

NP: That’s perfect. The book was written with the parental attention span in mind. Or at least it was written because I have the parental attention span at this point.

MF: Let’s get to the most important topic. My favorite self-medication after stressful fathering days is a hit of weed. But I’ve never used a pot vaporizer. You write about how it changed your pot-smoking life. I’m still stuck using a one-hitter.

NP: Well, a one-hitter is still a part of the arsenal, for when I’m out. You can’t really carry the Silver Surfer with you. It’s heavy; you need an electric outlet. It’s a little more ritualistic. The culture of pot smoking is more highly evolved out here in L.A., with these dispensaries everywhere. The medical marijuana. Now everybody here has glaucoma. Twenty-two year-old guys are just coming down with glaucoma, left and right. It’s a terrible affliction. Arthritis, back pain, depression. Irritable bowel syndrome. If you’re a depressed person with irritable bowels, welcome to stoner heaven.

MF: Your son, Elijah, is now close to four-and-a-half, so you’re several years ahead of me on the fatherhood curve. I found myself nodding when I came across passages in your book like, “life, once so expansive, seemed to shrink as baby grew” and “life suddenly seemed comprised of decisions I didn’t want to make.” Since becoming a father, I’ve never felt so confined, at times, and—frankly—depressed. It was a relief to me, in a strange way, to read someone else saying these things.

NP: Here’s what you need to know: It gets less confining the older the kid gets. The kid turns into a real person, with activities. You’re not always doing everything that you would ideally want to do, but it’s not infantilizing once the kid is no longer an infant. There is light. You just have to break free of those difficult early years.

MF: In my mind, I sort of have this scale—the percentage of being a parent that sucks, percentage that’s great. At age three months, I was at 40 percent great, 60 percent sucks. At best. Just recently, I think, I’ve broken over the 50-50 barrier. Though last night, when the kid started throwing up just as we were about to leave her with a babysitter so we could finally have an adult dinner, it was 100 percent sucks.

NP: For me, at three months—well, as a Dad, you’re not really doing that much—so it was 60 percent great, 40 percent sucks. At a year, it was reverse—40 percent great, 60 percent sucks. At two years, it sucks 80 percent of the time. It just does. But now, at age four, it’s probably 75 percent great. But we had some tough times getting to this point.

MF: Yeah—I read about your son’s biting problem, and how he was kicked out of preschool because of it.

NP: Well, he doesn’t bite any more. Because he showed his dark side so early, we’ve been working with him for so long that it’s all starting to clear up and he’s turning into a really nice, sweet kid who has much better social skills than his father. At age two, kids are just cavepeople. They’re working off their lizard brains. I’m enjoying fatherhood almost all the time now. And if I don’t enjoy it, it’s because of external circumstances. Like the lack of space in our house, the lack of privacy. And politics.

MF: What about a second kid?

NP: No.

MF: Definitely not?

NP: Absolutely not. Unquestionably no—even though it’s almost weirder in our society to have one kid than to have none.

MF: I’ve been saying to people that zero or two both seem like good choices for kids.

NP: The cliché is that it’s tough for only kids because they don’t have anyone to play with around the house. But having multiple kids presents its own problems. Sometimes it’s easier to have one kid, sometimes it’s easier to have multiple kids. But I think that anyone who speaks in absolutes is fooling himself.

MF: My wife is pregnant right now. I feel like a tidal wave is about to descend on me.

NP: Yeah, well, it probably is. Two kids is four times the work.

MF: That’s the rumor.

NP: You’re going to have an infant and a toddler?

MF: And I travel for a living.

NP: Well, that’s good for you—at least you’ll get to sleep when you stay in hotels. But that puts a lot of extra pressure on your wife.

MF: Who also works. She’s a professor at the university here [in Bozeman, Montana].

NP: We just didn’t want another kid.

MF: Your book, I think, could act as a form of birth control.

NP: I just wanted people to get a sense of what it’s really like, without any frippery or myth. The poop and pee stuff; the tired parent stuff; the trading sex for getting up with the kid stuff—that’s things that all parents have to deal with. The stuff that’s most important in the book, I think, is the struggles we had getting Elijah into a decent preschool, and having a safe neighborhood to live in, and finding health care. These are the kinds of things you don’t think about, that the books don’t prepare you for.

MF: So what do you say to two people who have great, fulfilling, busy lives, who have good careers, and are not sure whether to have a kid?

NP: You can’t say don’t have a kid. If you’re a parent, you can never tell someone else not to have a kid. But you just say, ‘Really think about whether you want to give up all this freedom. It’s not necessary.’

MF: All the people I asked before my wife and I had a kid were filled with enthusiasm. No one even said one cautionary word. No one said that not having a kid isn’t a bad decision.

NP: It’s actually a good decision not to have a kid. There are enough people on this planet. There are way too many people, probably three times as many. You don’t need to make another. When people say, Oh, I really want to have a big family, I think: why? It’s almost irresponsible. But, but—my wife just said, ‘Ooh, better be careful there, bud’—at the same time, big families can be awful fun.

MF: Is your wife listening in?

NP: Regina monitors my interviews to make sure I don’t put my foot up my ass.

MF: Go ahead, put it up. What’s your position on kids and TV?

NP: We watch so much TV that it was inevitable that our kid was going to watch TV. I’m in favor of quality TV.

MF: I’ve been addicted to Entourage lately. I have no idea why.

NP: Because it’s a male sex fantasy. It’s a life we men with kids cannot lead.

MF: What are you going to say to your son when he reads this book?

NP: I don’t know. I’ll have to see how he responds to it.

MF: I think he’ll say, ‘Dad, man, you smoked a lot of weed.’

NP: Oh, probably. But I don’t think that stoner parents are that controversial any more.

MF: But there have been some vitriolic responses to your book.

NP: Not about weed. But when it comes to parenting, people can get really judgmental. Parenting books are a dime a dozen. But I think that, to some extent, I’ve captured a generational mood here.

MF: Or at least, you may have coined a term.

NP: I have been seeing “alternaparent”—and “alternamom” and “alternadad”—a lot more recently.

MF: I like the way you can spin the word sarcastically or seriously.

NP: It’s a play on alternative culture, which was marketed directly to you and me as a countercultural lifestyle. But really it was nothing—mostly crappy music and ugly fashion. Alternative: It was totally meaningless then, and it’s meaningless now.

MF: The last week, which has been a tough one for my baby, and her parents, I was thinking that if I could take it back, and not have a kid, I think I would. I just want to sleep till noon and not have to make 17 phone calls to arrange a simple dinner with my wife. But it sounds to me that you are squarely in the it’s-worth-it-to-have-a-kid camp.

NP: Oh, yeah. There’s no question. I love being a dad. I embrace the role wholeheartedly. I seem to have managed to find a way out of the darkness into a version of myself that I can tolerate. In other words, I’m a dad, but I’m still myself. And I think that’s the key. To stay true to who and what you were before you became a parent.

But you know what I’ve noticed? That, as I get older, 4:20 seems to be the time that the weed from the previous day wears off. You know how if you smoke a little bit, you wake up the next morning, you don’t feel so bad. But then around the middle of the day you start to sag a little bit.

MF: I have been getting pot hangovers lately.

NP: As you get older, you do start having those. But there are so many different varietals; you just need to find the one that’s perfectly attuned to your brain chemistry. If I smoke someone else’s swag, I can get really depressed, and really weird mentally. But if I have the right flower in my hip pocket, then I’m fine.

MF: You’re making me feel better, somehow—that, even though I’m having a second kid, things are going to get easier.

NP: Let’s put it this way: The next two or three years of your life are going to be a challenge, but eventually the weather will clear. And then you’ll have some fun.

MF: So what do you think is the more tease-worthy last name for a kid—Finkel or Pollock?

NP: Finkel is way worse. I had some Finkel friends when I was growing up, and they didn’t have too much trouble. I think in the end it comes down to the kid. If your kid ends up being a nebbish and a dork, then it’s going to be a long road. I had some trouble with Pollack when I was growing up, because I was kind of a dork. I don’t think my kid is going to be the same kind of dork, so I don’t think he’s going to have too much trouble. Especially when I’m already teaching him to call himself Poo-Lick.

MF: I’m going to have to work on the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Finkel. Don’t start singing that or I will have flashbacks to my youth. Well, I’m looking forward to reading how it all turns out with your son.

NP: Well, I hope there is a sequel in the offing.

MF: You could create our generation’s version of those 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up movies. I want to check in on Elijah and Neal every couple of years.

NP: That has a kind of nice ring to it, actually. I just hope that his life doesn’t take as many twists and turns as that one guy, who was in a mental institution, then he became a politician, then he was back in a mental institution. I don’t want Elijah to be that guy.

MF: All I’m hoping at this point is that the fucking Elmo’s World theme song gets the hell out of my head.

NP: Well, just stop showing her fucking Sesame Street if it’s bothering you, dude.

MF: Words to live by.


Michael Finkel is the author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. Neal Pollack has been declared America’s greatest living writer, but he’s much happier as a daddy blogger.

We’re All Photographers Now

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

A New York Times story looks at the self-portrait phenomenon, spurred on by technology and now showcased at the Musée de l’Elysée’s exhibit, We Are All Photographers Now: The Rapid Mutation of Amateur Photography in the Digital Age. Among the artists featured is Noah Kalina, whose video “everyday” is the sum total of the 2,356 self-portraits he took from January 11, 2000 to July 31, 2006. “Noah’s video represents a phenomenal amplification not just in what he produced and how he did it, but how many people the piece touched in such a short period of time,” William A. Ewing, the director of the museum, tells the Times. “There is nothing comparable in the history of photography.” More than 5 million people have watched it on YouTube–if you’re not among them, click below. It’s amazing.

Geek Shirts: a SXSWi Photo Essay

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

SMITH Magazine’s first annual SXSWi Geek T-Stream, a mostly cotton wonder of personal expression. Thanks everyone—you look marvelous.

Watch as a slideshow and download on our Flickr stream. All photos are posted under a Creative Commons license.

Click on photos to enlarge; mouseover for previous and next.

Nerdy girl gone wild P1010049.JPG P1010052.JPG Dogster's Ted Rheingold & Molly Bloom's Molly Ditmore P1010055.JPG
P1010056.JPG P1010110.JPG He draws She draws P1010136.JPG
P1010134.JPG P1010133.JPG P1010132.JPG P1010131.JPG P1010130.JPG
P1010128.JPG P1010123.JPG I'm blogging this P1010119.JPG P1010118.JPG
P1010117.JPG P1010114.JPG P1010109.JPG P1010106.JPG P1010105.JPG
P1010104.JPG P1010103.JPG P1010102.JPG P1010101.JPG SMITH's Smith
No, he doesn't want to... P1010098.JPG Guaranteed P1010093.JPG Barney hata
P1010091.JPG P1010087.JPG P1010086.JPG P1010084.JPG Laughing Squid's Scott Beale
P1010073.JPG Nice font P1010064.JPG P1010062.JPG P1010061.JPG
Twitter bug P1010059.JPG P1010058.JPG P1010057.JPG RUWT
Kevin Smokler at the FrayCafe

“I Could Kill For a Hug Some Days. And Would Die For a Kiss”: The Self Portraits of Meredith Farmer

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

* Slideshow includes 4:30 min. interview with Meredith Farmer (edited for time)
Take one self-portrait each day for a year. That’s the simple conceit behind Flickr’s 365 Days Project. More than 3,000 people have taken the self-portrait challenge, including Meredith Farmer, 26-year-old photographer who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and now lives in Portland, Oregon, where by day she’s an inventory specialist for the downtown REI. Since joining the Flickr group, Farmer says she spends most of her daily photo time working on that one shot. “My portraits usually rely very heavily on how I am feeling that day,” she says. “It’s really all-consuming.”The thirty shots in this photo essay are her favorite self-portraits, some from the 365 pool, some not. “I shoot many images in my attempt to get the ‘right’ photo of the day, and often I end up liking an outtake or 365 reject better than the photo that I chose for the day. Sometimes the photos you don’t like as much as first grow on you.”What makes a good image to you?
Emotion is the main subject of most of my images. Though my aim is to produce a technically correct and aesthetically pleasing photograph, my ultimate goal is always to evoke feeling, whether it is sorrow, happiness, anger, love, or desire. I use my photos as catharsis–all are produced in direct response to some internal voice that needs to be heard. So, if a photograph assists me in understanding and overcoming problems, I define that image as good.

Who first inspired you to take pictures?
I can’t really say that I have a specific individual who inspired me. I only began taking photos in September 2006. Well, actually, I was using my crappy point-and-shoot film camera to take some outdoor pictures during the summer of ’06 (you can see them at the beginning of my Flickr stream) but I really got into it when my dad came to visit at the end of August. He saw some of my photos and bought me the most fantastic gift that I have ever received: my Canon S3-IS. Though some may regard it as another “crappy point-and-shoot,” I love it.

The self-portraits began when I joined the 365 days pool. But, if there’s anyone who inspired me, it was my father for encouraging my hobby and helping me believe that I could be good at something creative.

What’s the most important quality of a photo for you?
Evocation. Out of all of the aspects (lighting, composition, setting, etc.) the feelings behind the image are the most important. This more emotional approach is probably a result of my lack of technical training and studio. Without all worry regarding the actual “correctness” of the photo, I can shoot from a more intuitive place.

What do you consider off-limits?
I’d say images without feelings, then, would be a place I will not go. For example: in 365 days, we have to take one self-portrait per day for one year. Some members of the pool simply take the same “camera at arm’s length” photo day in and day out. I could not and will not do that. To me, the more socially or politically incorrect images often evoke the most feeling. So my definition of off-limits will probably differ widely from most.

What’s the fish that got away–the photo you saw but didn’t have a camera for?
I have not been photographing for too long, and I always have my camera with me. Of course, there’s always the gorgeous sunrise that got away. I remember one morning I was riding my bicycle across the bridge on the way to work, and there was the most amazing mist over the Willamette River. I almost stopped, but was so worried about being late that I told myself that surely it would be foggy another morning. I still regret not stopping.

More frequently, however, I am limited by the capabilities of my camera. Some images that I dream up will never come to fruition because they are more conceptual and fluid, and cannot be captured in one still frame.

From whom, what, or where do you derive inspiration?
Many of my captions contain lyrics to songs, as well. In a perfect world, each one of my photos would be viewed with the accompanying lyrics. Elliott Smith is a huge inspiration. Well, his music, at least. His songs are so rich and emotional—I empathize with many of his feelings of worthlessness, depression, and isolation and often keep his lyrics in mind when composing my images.

My depression is also another “inspiration,” if you can call it that. I can easily pinpoint the negative emotions and find it extremely therapeutic to express them through my photos. I hope that others find solace in the fact that they are not alone in their pain, and that it is not to be taken lightly or pushed under the rug.

What’s the picture you’d most like to take?
There are so many. Most days I think of three or four photos that never come to fruition. I love clone shots. Not getting too specific here, but I’d love to get even more conceptual with my images—surrealism is a subject that I find both daunting and fascinating.

Where are you happiest taking photographs?
My home. There I am not worried about strangers wondering what I am doing. I am not self-conscious. I can focus entirely on the subject at hand, which is usually myself. One of my goals is to become more comfortable taking public photos—for now I prefer to have an escort. When I’m with someone else, I feel almost validated, you know? But I’m working on it.

Princess Di

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

Silent, Awkward—and Reeking of Royalty
By Earl Adams

360410325_6f10de2c57.jpgA decade ago, when Princess Diana was still alive and in the midst of her ignoble divorce proceedings, I happened to find myself in the lobby of the Victoria Albert Museum, London, nursing a crushing hangover. My goal was to find the museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright Rooms improbably disassembled and transported there, pine panel and all, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

A frowsy desk attendant was guiding me through a large incomprehensible map when she suddenly gasped, paled considerably, and drooped into a messy curtsey. At my side, looming large, was Diana: tall, beautiful and heavily made up. She had skinny long feet and big equestrian hands. The Princess leaned in and asked the attendant for a Mr. So-and-So who was to give her a tour “of the rooms where the benefit will be.” Mr. So-and-So was dutifully summoned and there, waiting his arrival, the three of us stood, silent, awkward and, in my case, reeking of gin.

I was convinced at the time (and how right I was), that the Princess should, like all good troubled regal personages, move to Manhattan where the living would be easy and the press relatively unobtrusive. Cursing my stutter-inducing hangover, I saw my opportunity here was fleeting as a mole-like nervous wreck of a museum attendee was rapidly hotfooting it in our direction. I turned and blurted, “Look, you really should move to New York. It would be so much easier for you there…” Before I could continue to make my case, the Princess was drawn away but she did turn back to acknowledge me as she went off. We locked eyes. She cocked her head to one side and gave me that, “I love you, get away from me” smile.

The smile we recall so fondly.

Home Brewed: The Photography of Joe Fornabaio

Monday, February 5th, 2007

Go to the photos

Joe Fornabaio now lives in Manhattan’s East Village, but he keeps his camera close to home—which is wherever his extended family can be found. Christmas, Halloween, first communion, birthday parties—if there’s family, cake and a “bajillion course Italian meal” to be had in the Fornabaio family, you can bet your seven fishes that Joe and his camera will be there, too, both as participant and documentarian. “On any occasion I’m there in celebration with them, but they’ve become comfortable with my camera by my side so I get to shoot without drawing a glance,” he says. He takes photographs both for love and for a living using his Mamiya RZ 67. The 37-year-old photographer shares a few of his very personal pics with SMITH, and his thoughts on what makes him click.

What makes a good image to you?
I like different images for different reasons. Sometimes I like an image for its visual strength, sometimes for its content. The cream of the crop is when you’ve got both in one photo.

Who first inspired you to take pictures?
My high school art teacher, he didn’t inspire me so much as bring photography to my attention. I’m forever grateful to him for seeing the boredom I had in his class.

What’s the most important quality of a photo for you?
I need to like it whether it’s content or just visual strength. If I don’t like it I’m not going to look at it again.

What do you consider off-limits?
For me, I can’t shoot the depressing side of life when people are at their most difficult time, so I admire photojournalists who do by covering wars and human interest pieces that focus on the sadder parts of life that we need to be aware of.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen through the viewfinder?
Let me put it this way: nothing that’s kept me from shooting, but I am eagerly awaiting that moment when someone will have to call an ambulance because I won’t be able to breathe from laughing so hard.

What’s the fish that got away—the photo you saw but didn’t have a camera for?
I see ’em everyday but I don’t sweat it. I can’t capture every moment of my waking life so I’ve learned to appreciate every moment regardless whether I’ve captured it or not. I’ve learned to not beat myself over the one that ‘got away’ because there are way too many moments in life that I find interesting. So I always carry at least one of my point-and-shoot Yashica T4’s with me so I at least have something on film.

From whom, what, or where do you derive inspiration?
Everything. People, places, things. Cliché? I don’t care, it’s the truth, and there’s too many to list.

What’s the picture you’d most like to take?
Actually, this is sort of the ‘one that got away,’ a self-portrait with my point-and-shoot camera at arms length atop the Twin Towers overlooking New York City in the background.

If anyone could take a picture of you, who would it be?
Lorenzo Giustini, my four-year-old nephew. What a great name, Lorenzo Giustini, sounds like some great pioneer/turn of the century photographer. He’d probably shoot it with his parents’ point-and-shoot digital camera. Why? Because he has no preconceived notions of what a photo should be, so he would shoot endlessly the boundless curiosity he has with a camera that instantly gratifies him. No rules, no ego, pure enthusiasm.

Where are you happiest taking photographs?
Wherever I’m standing. As long as there’s a breath in my body and I’m fortunate enough to have the strength in my arms to lift a camera and the eyes to look through a lens then I’m happy. I consider myself very fortunate to love what I do for a living, which also enables me to keep doing my personal work. So it’s a double whammy: I love to shoot and get paid for it!

Below are some of Joe Fornabaio’s favorite family photos.
Click on an image to enlarge.

Easter at my mother’s house. My cousin Ann Marie taking a picture of some of us in the back patio. The weather was gorgeous that weekend so we set up a long table outside in the backyard patio to accommodate about 12 of us.

Easter at my mother’s house. Left to right: my cousin Francesca’s husband, Michael, and my brother Donato sneaking a peek at some dessert. My brother is pulling the box open.

Cousin Ralph getting a haircut by Anthony of Artistic Image on Staten Island. This is part of another project I’ve begun on barbershops.

Christmas at my mother’s house. Left to right: My cousin Nancy’s son Sal sitting on the couch bored out of his skull while she has a conversation with my brother Anthony’s girlfriend, Antonia.

Easter at my mother’s house. My cousin Ralph fixing bicycle for his daughter Diana.

Easter at my mother’s house. Left to right: My cousin Francesca’s son Michael, my cousin Tommy’s son Giovanni eating, and my cousin Nancy’s son Joseph, with my cousin Filomena in background.

My Aunt Ida’s sixtieth birthday. Left to right in front at table: Diana, Victoria, Aunt Ida, Sophia, Aunt Maria. In the background: Aunt Antoinette, cousin Tina and mom all looking on.

Easter at my mother’s house. Back of my brother Anthony’s head as he talks to his girlfriend Antonia.

My cousin Joe’s daughter Antonia’s christening at the Knights of Columbus on Staten Island. The man’s head is my Uncle John.

Sam (my cousin Filomena’s son) wrapped up in toilet paper at my cousin Santo’s son Nicholas’ first birthday. We have lots of kids at family gatherings now, so they hired this DJ who specializes in entertaining kids; one of the things he had them do was wrap each other up in toilet paper.

Barely skipping a beat to eat, my brother Anthony eating as my Aunt Ida is putting a lobster bib around him with a tray of baked clams and lobsters in the foreground. In an Italian household like mine, Christmas Eve dinner is all fish.

Food coma sets in on my brother Anthony sleeping next to a doll after a Thanksgiving meal at my Aunt Antoinette’s house. Don’t ask me how the doll wound up there.

At my cousin Tommy’s son Giovanni’s first communion party. Left to right: Filomena laughing as she looks on, John with his Blackberry and his wife (my cousin) Francesca both looking puzzled at an email he’s received.

Joe (my cousin Nancy’s son) at his Aunt Filomena’s wedding looking not too excited about the stiff suit.

Easter at my mother’s house. Mom showing cake to my cousins. Left to right: Ann Marie, Christine and my brother Anthony’s girlfriend, Antonia.

Left to right: My cousin Francesca’s kids Victoria and Michael. I was doing some formal pics of the family and the kids were dying to put on their Halloween costumes. We finally obliged, and I just let them go wild. Then it happened. She was moving the chair when my cousin John and I noticed her stockings were around her knees. (We hadn’t seen it earlier because her skirt hid it.) That’s when Michael leaned in to see what we were laughing at.

Left to right: Cousin Joann’s husband, Joe; Uncle John; and Uncle Sal’s brother-in-law Enzo sitting on wall at cousin Santo’s engagement party at his parents Zia Dolores and Uncle Sal’s house in Brooklyn.

More of Joe Fornabaio’s work can be found on his site

Back Home with Herold Noel

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Herold Noel’s War At Home
By Michael Slenske

Michael Slenske writes SMITH’s Back Home From Iraq column

What’s the difference between a tank fueler working in Iraq for Halliburton and a grunt doing the same job for the United States Army? One gets a six-figure salary; the other gets a rifle and a steady supply of MREs. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess who’s more likely to end up homeless upon returning from the war. (Hint: It’s not the one with the fat KBR pay stubs.) Just ask Herold Noel.

After spending eight months in Iraq—during which time he took part in the initial push to the Baghdad Airport as a fueler with the 3rd Infantry, 7th Cavalry, out of Fort Stewart, Georgia—Noel returned home to Savannah in August 2003 as an unemployed 24-year-old with few options. Having already extended his enlistment beyond the standard four-year contract, he was told he’d have re-enlist if he wanted back into the army. With a wife and three children to support, he tried finding a civilian job as a commercial fueler (even with Halliburton). Unfortunately, his vet status didn’t broaden his employment opportunities. Running out of time, luck, and money, Noel packed up his family and went to live in a tiny bedroom in his mother-in-law’s apartment in Brooklyn, the borough in which he was born.

Unemployment wasn’t the only problem dogging Noel, who also returned with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I was always jumping out of my sleep, scaring the kids, walking around the house in the middle of the night like I’m looking for something—so I had to move out,” says Noel, who would later become the subject of the award-winning documentary When I Came Home, which was just released on DVD. “After that, I was on the road. I was in the car, sleeping everywhere I could sleep. Sometimes, I’d just go up on the roof of a building. I was roughing it.” Noel ended up roughing it on the streets of New York for a year—all the while trying to get disability and housing benefits from the V.A. After six months, he finally got his disability payments, but it took a year for him to get off the streets, and that happened only with the help of an anonymous donor. “They are creating terrorists,” he says, “because they don’t pay us any mind.”

With some 600 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan estimated to be living on the streets—and with the president calling for the deployment of more than 20,000 additional troops in the so-called surge —Noel is engaging in another war, speaking to high-school and college students, rap stars, and politicians to raise awareness about this new generation of homeless vets. His mission is to help avoid what happened after Vietnam, a war that left 150,000 troops homeless after the fighting stopped.

Did you always know you wanted to join the military?
I didn’t always know, but at that time I was 19, I was going to New York City Technical College [in downtown Brooklyn], I had two kids. And I was living with my mother. So what’s the best thing for me to do? Join the military and have my own home, right?

Did you ever think you’d go to war?
Nope. It was before 9/11, before all of that. It never crossed my mind.

And after 9/11?
Yes. I did, but I didn’t want to believe it. I was stationed in Korea when 9/11 happened. After Korea, I was stationed in Fort Stewart. We were supposed to go to Kuwait for training, but everybody knew we were going to war. I was about to leave the military because my time was up. But me trying to be a whole horse soldier and all that, I didn’t want my friends to go to war and I’m not there. I’m not a person who likes to hear about shit; I like to be in the midst of shit, so I joined.

Operationally, what were you doing over there?
We were the spearheads of the war. Our mission was to take over Baghdad Airport. Every other unit was attached to us. It was March 2003. The president gave Saddam 24 hours to get out, but everybody knew Saddam wasn’t going nowhere. The night before we went in, we heard the air force dropping bombs. My sergeant was crying and talking about “those are people out there.” Daylight came, we was in front of a berm before Iraq. We bust the berm, and all we see is T72 tanks. We see a whole bunch of those blown up, bodies hanging out of them. So I was basically happy, we didn’t have to bust out our guns, because I was in a support platoon, which consists of mechanics, fuelers, the people that fill up the Apaches and the tanks.

How is that job?
Sounds easy, but shit, it’s far from it. I only chose the job because women did it, but I was sadly mistaken. They put me in a Cav unit. It was all men. It was, like, the second or third day—I know I didn’t sleep for two or three days—and I was driving the whole time, since I was the lowest rank. We were about to hit the hard turf, and we were almost there, sitting by the truck, smoking a cigarette, just bullshitting, when a mortar landed right in the middle of us. Everybody took off running, and all you heard was BOOM! But it dug so deep in the sand that all you saw was sand shooting out. Next thing you know, everyone jumped in their trucks and just scattered. I didn’t know I could move that quick. My sergeant was driving, and he had his headphones on. And another mortar blew up right by our truck, and I’m in a fucking fuel truck. I was, like, “Move the fucking truck!” We take off; our truck gets stuck in the sand. Then a big 88—it’s like a big-ass unarmed pickup truck for broken-down tanks—slid right in front of us. If we took five seconds more, we all would have been dead.

So how did that play on your mind through the course of the war?
I thought the government sent me there to die. That was my first reaction: “I’m going to die.”

It felt like a suicide mission?
Yes. Because we were not supposed to see that shit. I’m a support platoon; you have to protect us so we can fill you up. After that day, all we were getting was attacked. And I’m talking for the whole eight months we were there, even when we were leaving.

And how did that play on you when you came back?
When I came back, it was unreal to me because I was supposed to be dead. That story I just told you—that was one event, just one of many. And that’s just the beginning, just a light coat. I didn’t even tell you the horror. When I first got back, I couldn’t believe I was alive. I couldn’t believe I was looking at people. I couldn’t believe I was hugging my kids. I couldn’t even touch my kids at a point, because I had seen kids die over there. I was looking at a little girl in Iraq who got her head blown off, and I’m looking at my daughter. The girl was the same age as my daughter.

How soon after you out-processed did you fall upon hard times?
It wasn’t right after. When I got out, I was planning on going back in. So I stayed in Georgia for a while. I was going to go to a recruiting station in Savannah and just go back in. They told me I had to get out to go back in.

Why did you want to go back right away?
That’s all I knew. I seen the horror. I’ve been there, I can’t believe I’m alive, but that’s what I know. I tried it, I got out, stayed, I tried to get a job as a fueler on the civilian side. They told me I needed a CDL [Commercial Drivers License]. In Georgia, jobs are scarce. Trying to look for factory jobs is tough, so I tried to become a truck driver, but they were telling me you had to go to school for, like, 16 months out of state. Then I tried to work for Halliburton.

Yeah, I put in my application to work for Halliburton, because they were paying, like, $20,000 a month in Iraq, and the bonus is like, $50,000. So in, like, six months, you’ll have over $100,000 in your bank account, and I know people working for Halliburton right now.

So what happened?
They accepted my application; I got approved. You got to go through this whole process—go to Texas, do some training—then they send you off.

And you did all that?
No. I was in Georgia. They gave me a letter, my ticket. I packed my bag. We were getting ready to go, so I called the guy again, just making sure of things. I asked, “What kind of weapon do you give us?”

What did he say?
He said, “No, you don’t get weapons.” I was, like, “What? I’ve been over there. You want me to go over there with no weapon and just a gas mask?” So I hung up the phone. I didn’t use the ticket. So they tried to get me some security job, tried to refer to some other agency, but I was, like, “No.”

What did you do then?
Money was running low, and I was paying rent. I called family members who told me to come to New York. So I came to New York. I was reading a brochure about V.A., and it said you could get education benefits, disability benefits, and I do have shrapnel in my knees, and I need a home. “Can you help me?” They asked, “Do you have a job?” And I was, like, “No, I don’t, but I still need a place to stay.” So they told me to go to the shelter. They told me I needed to stay in the shelter for a while to get Section 8. So I went through that, and I went to DHS [Department of Homeless Services], and they said they did have a DHS just for veterans, but they cut that program off a long time ago. So I said, “What am I supposed to do now? I’ve got kids, a wife, a new baby—come on, I need a place to stay.” But they said they can’t help me, and they referred me back to the shelter.

What drove you to start sleeping in your car?
The doctors call it post-traumatic stress disorder. I felt like less of a man just having to go through this. I’m in my sister-in-law’s house, and she has kids. She had to move those kids out of the room we were staying in, now I was going through my own little issues—my wife says I’m scaring the kids, so I had to move out. I had to leave. They allowed my wife and my youngest son to stay there, but my other two kids wasn’t by my wife. I had custody of them and had to take my kids with me, so I had to move them back to West Palm Beach, back to their mother. She bought the tickets for me so they could move back down there.

What’s the spectrum of where you would stay in a week?
Every night, I would stay somewhere different. Sometimes I would stay at my aunt’s place just to take a bath, but I wouldn’t let anyone know what I’m going through—you feel me? Because everybody knows I just came out of the army. Now, what am I going to tell them, I’m on the street?

Were you embarrassed?
Hell, yeah! Wouldn’t you feel embarrassed?

At a certain point, for sure.
If you went through what I went through, seeing kids getting killed, looking at death in the eyeball, and you came back alive, and you feel like you went through all that for a reason… They trained me to be a killer. Now you telling me you’re going to give this killer nothing, and you’re going to put me on the fucking street? So once I got rid of my kids and I knew my wife was staying with my mother-in-law, I fucking snapped. This is the part you didn’t see in the documentary—the part where I had to do what I had to do. I brought Dan [Lohaus, the director of When I Came Home] to the hood. I brought him to the drug houses and the places where the stick-up kids was, but they thought I was crazy, so they didn’t mess with me. They wanted me to be a problem—I’ll be a fucking problem. You want to put me on the street, I ain’t taking it like that.

So at what point did you realize you needed to start engaging in this war back home?
When I found out how the media works. When Paul Rieckhoff sat me down and told me how the media works.

Were you leery of the media?
Hell, yeah. I thought the media was full of shit.

Were you talking to any reporters in Iraq?
CNN was following us everywhere. The colonel was trying to get rid of them. People were telling them to get away.

Did you write letters home?
No. I wrote little poems that I sent home. The stuff they have over there now, we didn’t have any of that. We didn’t have Internet—we barely had phones. We didn’t have anything. We were the reason why they have that shit over there now.

When did you know you needed to start speaking out?
All that speaking out was from Paul, because Paul was a real soldier, and he does it with such ease. And I thought. “I could do that.” He said I had a passion about this. He said just say what’s in your heart and say what you feel, because once you do something with passion, nothing will go wrong. Those insurgents in Iraq have passion; they have passion to blow themselves up—you going to die for that? I’ll die just to save another soldier’s life so they don’t end up like how I ended up. Because that’s how Vietnam vets ended up: fucked up and drunk, getting all into drugs, ending up on the street for seven years. Not me.

What’s the main problem causing homelessness among troops?
Lack of resources. That’s it. That’s the basic point. I went to a press conference at the Salvation Army vets homeless shelter in Queens on December 21 because Black Veterans for Social Justice’s Ricky Singh called me and told me Mayor Bloomberg is going to give a press conference about this homeless-vets situation because they seen the film, Mayor Bloomberg seen the film, all these people seen the film. But they were keeping it on the hush-hush. So I get to the homeless shelter, and the guys were Vietnam vets, and I’m looking at them, like, “Wow.” And they were going to make an announcement that they were going to give 100 vets permanent residences by the next 100 days.

That’s it?
No, they said they were going to raise that up because they said they have 700 homeless vets in the city now. So they put all the homeless Vietnam vets in the front, and they were going to give three homeless vets residences that day. It was part of whatever plan Mayor Bloomberg is trying to do. We have a whole bunch of camera crews behind us—New York 1—and I’m thinking this is a vets event, ask questions about the vets because that is what I came here to hear. This one lady asks about the pollution in Staten Island. I’m, like, “What the fuck?” Then they start talking about [former New York State comptroller, Alan] Hevesi, then some guy starts asking about some book some guy just wrote, and he’s sitting there answering these questions. He’s not even saying, “No, this is about the vets.” He’s answering these questions. So another vet from Vietnam Veterans of America came in. He says, “Excuse me, mayor.” He had a loud tone of voice, so the mayor had to listen to him, and he started telling the truth. He was, like, “The V.A. don’t offer this, and every time we have a thing for vets, the city doesn’t like to fund vets-only programs.” Bloomberg was just looking stupid, and the V.A. Secretary [Jim Nicholson] he was there looking stupid, because the guy said some real shit.

So 2008 rolls around, who do you vote for to fix this situation?
Barack Obama.

Why’s that?
Because his name is the only name I’m hearing who is trying to do something. He’s really, really trying to do something with it, but they are picking away at his ideas. With a little understanding and talking to, he’d be great. There’s other politicians that don’t agree with it.

How do you feel about that kind of disconnect? What causes it?
Greed. People forget about their history. They’re scared to make a change.

What’s your message when you speak to groups?
My message is getting people to think about the soldier. Because there’s a soldier in everybody’s life. You may know a friend of a friend, who has a brother. And that soldier is fighting for your future. If you don’t want to see Armageddon real soon or World War III, where you see people in America carrying AK’s freely, people in America sticking people up freely, where our money ain’t shit. Imagine all the Bentleys didn’t mean shit. We’re preventing that—so why put us out on the street?

Are you enlisting anyone else in this war?
I’m reaching out to superstars, rappers. I’m trying to get people to rap about it, to sing about it, because I dabble a little bit in the music industry. I produce a little bit—I make beats. Dan Lohaus talked to Questlove; I talked to Chuck D, Busta Rhymes, Eminem. Once they start singing about it, the politicians’ kids hear the music, they’re going to ask questions. It’s all a mindfuck. All you have to do is structure how people see society.

What are they saying?
They’re feeling it. Everyone I talked to. It’s just what they do about it. Are they going to mention it in their next interview? Are they going to do something? I ain’t hearing nothing yet. I don’t hear anything about it on the radio. If you make music about it, you can make a hit just by talking about a soldier’s life. Come on. There’s people talking about getting shot nine times for some unnecessary shit. But imagine somebody getting their arms blown off for something legit. Somebody losing their face, or somebody getting shot 14 times and living.

What will end your war back home?
I’m going to keep doing this until I talk to someone who’s going to really do something. Until I’m sitting down at a table in the White House or a conference room in D.C,. and the people that can make things happen are listening to me. But I don’t think it will ever happen in my time. I already see how it is. Hillary sat down with me—it boosted my head up—but I think if Paul Riekhoff weren’t in the room we never would have spoken. Look how long it’s been happening. It’s already repeating itself.

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