Our Best Longreads of 2013

Flickr/Steve Schroeder

The Weeklies

Monica Potts

From the outside, it is hard to know that people live in the Ramada Inn. The parking lot is always empty. The hotel sits facing a wide suburban boulevard called Kipling Street, just off Interstate 70 in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. The interchange where Kipling meets the freeway is packed mornings and evenings with daily commuters going to or coming from Denver and with skiers heading west into the Rockies. Hotels dot I-70 as it cuts through the 764-square-mile stretch of suburbia that runs from the city into the mountains, but at the intersection with Kipling is a cluster of seven budget-savers that travel websites warn tourists away from. The hotels advertise low prices—ranging from $36 to $89 a night—on neon signs next to gigantic flags that whip in the Front Range wind. Most offer even lower weekly or monthly rates. The Ramada is farther from the frontage road than the other hotels and is harder to notice, with its plain yellow stucco and dimly lit red sign.

Inside the lobby, which has wide windows and a clear view of a long, low mountain called Table Top and the snowy peaks beyond, are plenty of clues that the Ramada is more than just a hotel. Off the lobby sit two sets of washers and dryers that each take a dollar in quarters, and on weekends families use one of the bellhop carts kept in a back hall to roll out baskets of dirty laundry. In the late afternoon, schoolchildren do their homework on the dozen tables where guests have breakfast. Residents sit at the two computers with Internet connections. They wander around in sock-clad feet and chat with whomever they run into.

At any given time, roughly 20 to 40 guests are staying long term. Since they pay by the week, they call themselves “weeklies.”

 

AP Images

Ghosts of the Rio Grande

Brendan Borrell

The path across the border is littered with bodies. Bodies old and bodies young. Bodies known and bodies unknown. Bodies hidden, bodies buried, bodies lost, and bodies found. The stories of the dead haunt the frontier towns from Nuevo Laredo to Nogales, and even deep within the interior of Mexico down to Honduras, someone always knows someone who has vanished—one of los desaparecidos—during their journey north.

Many of those missing end up in the South Texas soil. Out on the Glass Ranch, a man named Wayne Johnson stumbles upon a skull, some bones, and a pair of dentures scattered near a dry pond. During a bass fishing tournament at La Amistad Lake, anglers come upon a decomposing corpse near the water’s edge. Late one summer night, a train rumbles down the Union Pacific Line, but it fails to rouse a father and son slumbering on the tracks. For 2012, Brooks County, with a population of just 7,223, reported 129 deaths from immigrants trying to evade the Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias, double the previous year. The county judge told the San Antonio Express-News that Brooks had run out of space for John Does in its Sacred Heart Cemetery.

The dead appear in springtime, when temperatures hit the triple digits, their fading T-shirts and tennis shoes strewn about the land like wilted wildflowers. Whether they tried to cross for money, love, or security, they did so knowing they might not make it alive.

 

The Homeschool Apostates

Kathryn Joyce

At 10 P.M. on a Sunday night in May, Lauren and John, a young couple in the Washington, D.C., area, started an emergency 14-hour drive to the state where Lauren grew up in a strict fundamentalist household. Earlier that day, Lauren’s younger sister, Jennifer, who had recently graduated from homeschooling high school, had called her in tears: “I need you to get me out of this place.” The day, Jennifer said, had started with another fight with her parents, after she declined to sing hymns in church. Her slight speech impediment made her self-conscious about singing in public, but to her parents, her refusal to sing or recite scripture was more evidence that she wasn’t saved. It didn’t help that she was a vegan animal-rights enthusiast.

After the family returned home from church, Jennifer’s parents discovered that she had recently been posting about animal rights on Facebook, which they had forbidden. They took away Jennifer’s graduation presents and computer, she told Lauren. More disturbing, they said that if she didn’t eat meat for dinner she’d wake up to find one of the pets she babied gone.

To most people, it would have sounded like overreaction to innocuous forms of teenage rebellion. But Lauren, who’d cut ties with her family the previous year, knew it was more.

 

Los Infiltradores

Michael May

When Marco Saavedra was arrested for the first time, during a September 2011 protest against U.S. immigration policy in Charlotte, North Carolina, he thought he was prepared. It was what he’d come to do. Still, he was taking a risk. Saavedra is undocumented, and he was aware that the Charlotte police had an agreement with the federal government, under what’s known as the 287(g) program, that gave them the power to apprehend illegal immigrants and turn them over for deportation. Saavedra, who was then 21, had known dozens of undocumented activists who’d been arrested without being deported. But as he was sitting, handcuffed, in a gray-brick holding cell at the county jail, it was hard to suppress the fear. He’d felt it most of his life, since his parents brought him from rural Mexico to New York City when he was three; growing up, he’d done all he could to make sure that even his closest friends didn’t know his status.

“The euphoria of the protest, the chanting in the street, was gone,” he says. “It was lonely and desolate. They took us out one by one to process us. And one of the others came back with paperwork indicating they planned to send him to an immigration detention center in Georgia. I panicked for a moment.”

 

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Born This Way? 

Beth Schwartzapfel

From the time she could talk, Maggie* has told her parents that she is a boy. She doesn’t say, “I want to be a boy.” She doesn’t say, “I feel like a boy.” She says, “I am a boy.” She tells her classmates, too. Lately—she’s in elementary school now—they’ve been having debates about it. “Maggie’s a boy,” one kid said recently, in a not-unfriendly, matter-of-fact sort of way.

“No, you idiot,” countered another. “She’s a girl. She’s wearing pink shoes.”

On a recent Tuesday morning, psychologist Kenneth Zucker tells this story at a weekly group supervision meeting, where he reviews cases with his dozen graduate students and postdocs. “As if, ‘duh’—it’s so obvious,” he says, and the room chuckles along with him.

 

Dennis Chamberlin

A River Runs Through It

Paul Greenberg

To get an idea of how American coastal waters might look just before they succumb to all the degradations they have suffered these past five centuries, it would be worth taking a July trip to Mobile Bay, an Alabama inlet that feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. If the air is still and hot, an event may occur that Gulf Coast residents call a “jubilee.” The bottom-dwelling flounder will be among its first victims, growing agitated as each successive gulp of water brings less and less oxygen across their gills.

In a panic, the fish will head shoreward toward the only breathable water they can find—the tiny oxygenated riffle the sea makes as it bumps lazily against the beach. At the shoreline, they will find humans waiting for them armed with “gigs,” crude sticks with nails protruding. With an easy stab, each gigger will impale a suffocating fish, sometimes two at a time. Wading out farther, the fishermen will find sluggish pods of blue crab and brown shrimp. As the bay slowly asphyxiates and the free-for-all reaches its climax, the human whoops coming from the darkness will give the impression of a happy time—a celebration of the ocean’s seemingly endless gifts.

But make no mistake. The Mobile Bay jubilee, while generally accepted as a naturally occurring phenomenon, is no cause for celebration

 

AP Images/Lars Halbauer

What’s Killing Poor White Women?

Monica Potts

Everything about Crystal’s life was ordinary, except for her death. She is one of a demographic—white women who don’t graduate from high school—whose life expectancy has declined dramatically over the past 18 years. These women can now expect to die five years earlier than the generation before them. It is an unheard-of drop for a wealthy country in the age of modern medicine. Throughout history, technological and scientific innovation have put death off longer and longer, but the benefits of those advances have not been shared equally, especially across the race and class divides that characterize 21st–century America. Lack of access to education, medical care, good wages, and healthy food isn’t just leaving the worst-off Americans behind. It’s killing them.

 

The 40-Year Slump

Harold Meyerson

What has vanished over the past 40 years isn’t just Americans’ rising incomes. It’s their sense of control over their lives. The young college graduates working in jobs requiring no more than a high-school degree, the middle-aged unemployed who have permanently opted out of a labor market that has no place for them, the 45- to 60-year-olds who say they will have to delay their retirement because they have insufficient savings—all these and more are leading lives that have diverged from the aspirations that Americans until recently believed they could fulfill.

 

Victor Juhasz

The End of the Solid South

Bob Moser

When Americans talk about the South, they tend to be talking about the past. When they talk about Southern politics, they tend to be talking about the old, stereotyped “Solid South”—that uniformly conservative, racist, anti-union, snake-handling cluster of former Confederate states that voted en masse for Democrats from the pre–Civil War through civil rights, then switched their allegiance to the former “party of Lincoln” beginning in the 1970s. Once LBJ and the Democrats betrayed the cause of white supremacy and Richard Nixon cooked up the “Southern Strategy,” the region became as solidly Republican as it once was Democratic. End of story.

Southern politics has never been quite so uncomplicated as that.

 

Can Obama’s Organizing Army Take Texas?

Abby Rapoport

Shortly before the Battleground Texas tour stopped in Austin’s old AFL-CIO building in early April, the sky opened up. Thunder and lightning raged, parts of the city flooded, and traffic came to a standstill. But Democrats kept arriving, some dripping wet, others clutching umbrellas rarely used in the city, and the meeting room soon filled with about 100 folks, some no doubt drawn by curiosity. Launched in February by two of Team Obama’s hotshot organizers, Battleground Texas was promising to inject into the nation’s biggest Republican stronghold the grassroots field tactics—the volunteer-organizing, the phone-banking and door-knocking, the digital savvy—that won the 2012 presidential election. After years of national Democrats seeing Texas as hopelessly red, what made this fledgling group think it could turn the state blue?

 

The Passion of Dan Choi

Gabriel Arana

On a Wednesday in August, Dan is setting up for Hungry Hungry Hippos night. On the white coffee table, he’s laid out a platter with sliced boiled eggs dusted with paprika; mini carrots and tomatoes; Sour Patch Kids; and a dozen pot cupcakes that have collapsed into themselves. “I can make brownies, but the cupcakes I can’t get right,” he says. He’s got backup: a six-foot glass bong. The table’s centerpiece is Hungry Hungry Hippos, a children’s game in which players operate four plastic mechanical hippos and try to gobble up as many marbles on the board as possible.

By the time an artist friend walks through the door, Dan is stoned, a fact he broadcasts loudly. “I’m high!” he tells her before bursting into high-pitched laughter. Dan offers her a hit, bringing a flame to the bowl. She takes one, exhaling with a grimace.

“What is that?” she says.

“Isn’t it great?” Dan asks.

“I used whiskey instead of water for the filter.” “It’s harsh, man,” she says.

 

Flickr/Gwen Roolf

U.S. Out of Vermont

Christopher Ketcham

During the Obama years, secession has mostly been an antic folly of the political right, courtesy of Texas nationalists, Dixie nostalgists, white supremacists, “sovereign citizens,” and gun nuts. There was no small amount of hypocrisy, of course, in this conservative rebellion. When Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2009 spoke publicly about a possible Lone Star secession, he billed it as a constitutional right in the face of overreaching government—though Republicans mostly hadn’t complained when George W. Bush was demanding profligate budgets and stabbing the sacred document with pencil holes.

Yet here in granola-eating, hyper-lefty, Subaru-driving Vermont was a secession effort that had been loud during the Bush years, had not ceased its complaining under Barack Obama, did not care for party affiliation, and had welcomed into its midst gun nuts and lumberjacks and professors, socialists and libertarians and anarchists, ex-Republicans and ex-Democrats, truck drivers and schoolteachers and waitresses, students and artists and musicians and poets, farmers and hunters and wooly-haired woodsmen.

 

The Task-Rabbit Economy

Robert Kuttner

At the rate things are going, tens of millions of us could end up in the role of Task Rabbits. Not actual Task Rabbits, mind you. But temps, contract employees, casual day laborers, baristas, warehouse pickers at Amazon, fast-food workers, call-center operators, nurse’s aides, underemployed “consultants,” and adjunct professors all have one core trait in common with freelance errand-runners: They have lost bargaining power. Even people with regular paychecks are less likely than their parents to have decent pay, benefits, and job security. In its technology, the Task Rabbit economy is very 21st-century, but it brings back the 19th, an era when most people who didn’t farm or own property were casual labor.

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