For this essay, you are to interview a person and write a profile of that person. Your profile should have a thesis that it tries to prove or show. The contents of a profile can vary widely, depending on the person you interview and the areas which he/she discusses. More on the contents in class.
Read Bill Pennington's recent New York Times profile of Bobby Valentine, new manager of the Boston Red Sox, at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/18/sports/baseball/luck-and-loyalty-keep-bringing-bobby-valentine-back.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=sports
Read the student comments on doing this assignment, below. Also see the profiles in the 1997 class magazine Welcome to our Voices by Gilda Azurdia, Selene Salvador, Michelle Pion, Jennifer Cornwall, and Joyce Gbarwea as examples, as well as the student profiles below, written in 1996. Read the portraits in Chapter 13 of Writing True, as well as Hilton als' profile of Toni Morrison and the Paris Review interview of John McPhee, both on Ereserve (the password is writing). Finally, read Beth Leech on interviewing and before writing your draft, John Schumacher on using your interviewee's words, both also on Ereserve.
The piece should address as readers the people at John Jay. It should be about 1000 WORDS LONG (4 pages typed) and be REVISED AT LEAST ONCE before it is handed in. I will grade this piece when it is handed in, but like all the pieces in this course, it may be revised again for the final portfolio.
It is difficult to gather enough material for a good profile in one interview alone. So you should supplement the info you gather from the interview with other material--interviews with other people, materials written by your interviewee (reports, letters, articles, etc.), magazine and newspaper articles, books, articles on the Internet on the subject(s) your interviewee discussed, films or tv shows on those subjects, etc. It is wise to do some of this research BEFORE the interview so that you can use the limited interview time asking informed questions. More on this in class.
Here are some TIPS for getting the job done efficiently:
1) Arrange an appointment with the person you will interview for about 1-2 HOURS of talk. Arrange to meet in a congenial environment. Explain why you want the interview, and promise to give the person a copy of your essay when it is done. If you want to tape-record the interview as well as take notes, ask the person's permission. Do not plan on ONLY recording. TAKE NOTES as well. Machines are unreliable and cannot think.
2) Create a LONG LIST of questions before your interview. Star the important questions so you can spot them as youíre interviewing. But be prepared to forget the questions and let the conversation go in another, unforeseen direction. Often, more interesting subjects than the one you start with develop out of free talk. A different subject--and thesis--than the one you started with may develop as you interview your subject. Be open to these possibilities.
3) During the interview, RELAX and be yourself. Do not try to write down EVERYTHING the person says. Rather, write down the gist of the talk and a few memorable phrases here and there. Try not to talk very much yourself. Use your prepared questions to keep the talk going. When the talk lags, ask a new question, or refer to something the person said earlier.
4) IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE INTERVIEW, go to a quiet place and write down EVERYTHING you remember the person saying, plus your impressions of the person (appearance, attitude toward the subject and you, tone of voice, mannerisms, etc.). Write a lot. Empty your brain quickly without regard to order.
5) Read over all the notes you made during and after the interview, listen to the recording of the interview if you made one, and read your notes on related materials. THINK:
WHAT will you write about? That is, into what CONTEXT will you place your person? (You needn't stick to your original idea.) HOW will you approach it? What will you try to SHOW OR PROVE? What parts of the interview seem useful for your purpose? (Don't use all the stuff just because you have it! Be selective.)
How can you ARRANGE the parts of your essay? How will you combine the interview material with the info gathered from other sources? Do you want to use a Q & A format for the interview parts you decide to use or selected quotes in regular essay form? Sketch an outline if you want to. Decide on an attention-getting lead.
CHOOSE THE QUOTES you want to use following the advice in our readings. Will you paraphrase some? How will you stitch them together into a coherent whole? Finally, write a ROUGH DRAFT all in one sitting. Bring it to class on March 27.
6) REVISE the draft, taking reader comments into account. Look over your inventory of the comments I've made on your earlier pieces. Then EDIT this piece in light of those comments. Make THREE clean copies to bring to class, one to hand in, one for yourself, and one for the person you interviewed. Also email me the piece.
I should have started this project by making arrangements with several interesting candidates instead of choosing only one. I should have anticipated that a problem might arise...and I should have covered my a--! Next time I need to plan things far in advance so that I can write a brilliant story, and if there are too many errors in my work, I could correct them and still hand in the assignment on time. Unless you are an exceptionally gifted writer, most pieces that are rushed have not been thought out beforehand, so they do not turn out to be that well written. Remember to gather up all the research and notes you have taken on whatever you plan to write about and put the ideas in order before you begin writing because that makes it easier to organize your piece. A well written piece need to be done at least three times...and the ideas need to be well arranged so you can keep your readers focused....The bottom line is to prepare, prepare, and prepare!
My advice to other students who are having trouble finding someone to interview is to relax and find a topic that you might be interested in. Next, find someone who is somehow related to that topic and talk to him or her. I guarantee that this will make this piece easier and fun to do.
If I were to give advice to another fellow student, it would be to interview someone who is willing and able to give a lot of information on that topic. At the same time, those who are not that free-flowing might just need more time to loosen up, but do not exclude them. Just give them more time, and give yourself more time.
My topic was affirmative action....I tried to illustrate the need for affirmative action through the experiences of my interviewee. [But] the interviewee began to give answers that didnít coincide with my topic. Because of this, I had to restructure my topic to go along with the answers given. In addition, I had to restructure my questions to try a more direct approach. By restructuring my questions in a more direct fashion, I began to get the answers I wanted....Because of the length and duration of the interviews, I had to make it a three-day process. This was very effective because it allowed me to evaluate answers given one day to generate more effective questions for the next day....The important thing that future students should consider is to allot enough time to go back and evaluate your profile with the interviewee. This would allow changes that may improve your paper. Besides giving yourself time, it is important to structure your questions....to ensure your control of your interview and...the answers you need.
The one assignment that afflicted me with writing anxiety was the interview with my uncle....This was my uncleís first time in America, and he was having a tough time finding a job. I did not want to add fuel to the fire. Asking questions that might be sensitive to him stirred some anxiety within me because I did not know what his reactions would be. How would he answer my questions? Would he answer them honestly? Would he get upset? These were the questions constantly filtering into my mind. In fact, I was close to choosing another individual to interview. Then I started to come up with ideas that would control his emotions to a degree. Perhaps choosing a neutral territory for the interview was the key. So I conducted the session in Central Park. I saw that he was comfortable with the arrangement because the atmosphere was pleasant. I then realized that my questions would get answered. The courage inside me grew. I say down with my uncle and proceeded with the interview.
The profile of a person was the most difficult for me because I wanted to interview someone who was interesting or had a good story to tell. I knew a lot of people who had stories, but they were all boring. The only person that I thought might catch the readerís attention was Michael Campbell. I had to decide if interviewing him would be fair because he is my boyfriend.... Sometimes when interviewing someone who is very close to you, itís hard to get direct answers because they assume you already know. To avoid this, before the interview, I told Mike, "Even if you think I know the answer to a question, answer it in your own words." This avoided statements from him like "You know that already," or "Why are you asking this?"
A person might think that interviewing a family member for the profile piece is easier than interviewing a stranger. However, this is not even close to the truth. Although I have been friends with and have known my father for my 21 years, I had never expected to have sweaty hands while asking him a simple question....I was surprised at my embarrassment and nervousness. Perhaps it was the anxiety of getting enough information to write my paper, or the role I had as interviewer that made me feel uncomfortable....Because the person I chose to interview was my father, I felt objectivity would be lost. Although I tried to be as objective and serious as possible, this became difficult and almost impossible....During the interview, I found myself suddenly interrupting him--which is a common habit of mine--to remind him of incidents or comments well known to us both. By doing this, I often felt I was putting words in his mouth. But as I proceeded with the interview, I improved. I let my interviewee take charge of the conversation. He spoke until he had nothing to say, and then I asked him another question. I found this technique of letting him talk for as long as he wanted the most effective because he felt comfortable and opened up to me.
Anna Michelle Bracero:
Of all people, I picked my fiancť [to interview]....He made it somewhat difficult for me to interview him. He was watching television, and I asked him to turn it off. There were things he just did not want to tell me. I wanted to kill him, although I learned things about him that I did not know before....Once in the interview, I said, "You never told me that" and became upset. I had to remember that I chose him for my piece and had to remain objective. I had to pretend I was not his fiancťe. It was difficult.
Before writing my profile piece, I had to decide between two topics that I felt were interesting....alcoholism and ...homosexuality. I have a family member who suffers from alcoholism. However, I rarely speak with her or see her, and I felt that perhaps she would not take the topic seriously if I did interview her. We are also closely related, and I decided not to do that topic because I wanted to avoid emotion. So I decided to do my profile piece on homosexuality.... I decided to interview someone on my job whom I consider a great friend. He was great throughout the interview, and I felt confident in asking him questions.... When I gave my interviewee a copy of the profile, I was not ready for his reaction. When I visited him to ask his opinion on the piece, I was surprised to find him crying because he never before saw his life written on paper. Till this day, I still do not know if I offended him by writing the piece or failed in treating his emotions with care....If you are writing about controversial topics, always be sure that the person you interview feels comfortable with what you seek to know.
The most difficult decision I made this term was whether or not to interview someone with full-blown AIDS for my profile piece. Before my interview with "Jerry," I was really nervous and was not sure if I could handle talking so intimately with him about such a heart-breaking topic....I tried to prepare myself psychologically prior to the interview because I didnít know how his story would affect me. What if I started to cry? What if he did? I decided I could handle it and my reasons for interviewing him overshadowed my reasons for not doing so. After it was over, I was extremely happy that I had decided to write my profile on him. He is one of the most fun-loving, high-spirited, enthusiastic people I have ever met. I would advise all other writers to always go after your story, no matter how difficult you think it may be. I learned many important things about the life of a person with AIDS, and it helped me appreciate the things I had in my own life. Even if you feel uneasy about a topic, you should always try to see it through.... It not only helps you learn something about someone else, it also helps you learn something about yourself.
In the first piece, the writer delays telling you that his subject is related to him until paragraph 3. What is the effect of this delay? He writes in third-person narrative, using quotes where appropriate. He uses many sensuous details, but does not give us a physical description of his subject. Does that bother you as it does me? Note how the ending connects neatly to the beginning. What, then, is the piece's thesis?
A GOLDEN ACCOMPLISHMENT
She used to worry about the results of her exam every day. The city took weeks and sometimes months to give them out. At the time, Cynthia Young was only 21 years old and attending City College. Taking the test to become a police officer was the most stressful thing she had ever done. There were hundreds of candidates, standing in lines that stretched around Theodore Roosevelt High School, waiting to take the exam. They were her competitors, and she knew she had to outscore most of them to continue her dream of becoming a New York City Detective. But first she had to pass the exam leading to police officer. She said her hands were sweating profusely as she checked on the answer sheet each answer she thought was correct. It was a cool summer day, but the chair she was sitting in felt like it was stuck to her buttocks. The heat that her body was generating could have provided enough energy to light the whole school.
She was afraid to stand up to relax her legs, thinking that the time would expire before she sat back down. She was a woman on a mission to accomplish a childhood dream, which was to carry a gold detective shield. There were people standing on line who were too old to become police officers, but they were taking the test just to take it. They were the dreamers or what police officers call buffs. Most of them carry citizen band radios tuned to the same channel as the police and fire departments. They can be seen at the location of emergencies, walking around behaving like emergency workers. The sad looks in their eyes gave Cynthia determination to score high on the exam, for the thought of becoming a buff herself frightened her. They were a sad bunch of people.
Cynthia Young is my sister, and I am interviewing her to gather information about her experiences in the police department. During the interview, I asked her what made her want to become a police officer and how and when it became a childhood dream. To my surprise she said, "You instilled it in me when we used to play cops and robbers as kids. You used to always play the cop and chase me to arrest me." She used to like when her big brother chased her around the house and tickle her during her childhood. That pleasant game stayed in her memory. She really wanted to become a police officer after I became one; she wanted to follow in my footsteps. She also was very impressed during my graduation from the police academy that over two thousand police officers saluted the American flag in sync.
Finally, the results came in the mail, and she took a very deep breath and opened the letter. She read it three times before she cried with joy. "I passed! I passed!" she screamed throughout the house with a joyful wail. She said that was the best day in her life. For the next year, she had to take a battery of exams pass a character investigation which required that police snoop around her neighborhood looking for dirt on her. This became very embarrassing for her. Most of the neighbors and store owners did not know she was trying to become a police officer, so they automatically thought the worst, that she was an undercover criminal. But, finally, some of them approached her and told her, " The F.B.I., C.I.A., and DT's [meaning detectives] were looking for you. What did you do, rob a bank or something? We told them you were a very nice college girl, and your bother was a police officer." She thanked them and shared her plans with them.
She thought the psychological exam was the funniest exam of them all, for she knew if she drew a window in the house where windows are not usually found, her dreams would have gone out that window. Candidates who put trees on the roof and windows even with the ground were sent for further psychological evaluation. They were not usually found fit to become police officers. This exam also was the most taxing on the body. It was eight hours long, with a one-hour lunch break, and it required her to answer 1500 questions. Most of the questions asked the same thing using different words.
On October 30, 1990, she was sworn into the New York City Police Department. She said this day will last in her memory for the rest of her life. She was one of 1,200 people chosen out of the 6,000 who passed the test, which 50,000 took. She was proud of herself; she reached a goal that she had set and made her mother, brothers, and other family members proud in the process.
She thought the police academy was a strange place. There weren't that many females, and the females that were there were always being chased by horny male recruits. She was given the impression that most of these guys, and girls in some cases, had never seen a woman before. She learned early that there were lesbians in the ranks; they didn't hide it, and in some cases they were very straightforward in letting people know what their sexual preference was. She remembers a female recruit embarrassing a male recruit by telling him, "I get more girls than you do." Everyone in the academy talked about that little incident. At times the recruits behaved like little kids. But she was not all that surprised at their behavior because she said, "You told me what to expect."
The only thing that surprised her was the racist remarks that some of the recruits used to make. She and I thought that things had changed, especially since a black man was the mayor, but we were wrong. Some of these recruits hated Mayor Dinkins with a passion she had never seen directed at anyone before. But they could not give a good reason why they hated him, and he was the person that had come up with the money to hire them. Some of the white recruits exhibited such anger for blacks that she feared for the black people they would encounter upon their graduation from the academy. They also hated women; she was very uncomfortable at times because she was both black and a woman. But for some strange reason they never picked on her, and she got along very well with everyone, including the jerks with the problems. She later found out that most of these guys lived outside the city and never had any dealings with minorities. They were reacting to fear and what they had heard other people say about minorities. She used to tease them by saying, "Come here. I'm going to sensitize you toward human beings," meaning teaching them how to deal with black people and other minorities.
One cold November night in 1990 while in the police academy, "I almost had a real heart attack," she said. The deep breath that she took as she spoke and the expression on her face made me believe her. She looked at me and smiled as if I were crazy because I was trying to figure out what had happened on that day. I asked her, "What happened?" She began telling me the story the way it unfolded. She was in her law classroom with thirty other recruits when the law instructor entered the room and made an announcement before he began teaching. He said, "The details are not all in, but we got word that a police officer was just shot in the face up in the Bronx." All of a sudden, the head of the police academy along with a group of other plain and uniformed police officers burst into the classroom and asked the instructor, "Is there a Cynthia Young in here?" Now, recruits are taught to jump out of their chairs and stand to attention whenever an officer enters the room. This was the big man himself; the person we were taught to fear with all our heart. So everyone jumped and snapped to attention as if a god had just walked into the room. But he said, "Forget that. I'm looking for Cynthia Young. Everyone sit down." She kept standing, saying a silent prayer to herself, for she didnít know what all these people wanted with her. He looked at her with a sad look in his eyes and said," Cynthia, itís your brother, but he's going to make it." With those words, tears began flowing from her eyes. She cried and asked, "What happened ?" She noticed tears in some of the other recruitsí eyes also. She later found out that the law class had been cancelled for the rest of the night.
The ride to the hospital was the longest, gloomiest ride she ever took. On the way the driver kept telling her, "Your brother shot and paralyzed the perp. He's going to make it". At the hospital, she had a meeting with Mayor Dinkins and other big shots. They wanted to know if she still wanted to be an officer. She told them, "Yes." As she told me this story, she reached over and gave me a kiss and said, "Thanks for making it."
She graduated from the police academy and was sent to a Bronx precinct. She tried to stay focused on her goal, which was to make detective. She had read many things about cops in the newspapers, but now she was getting experience firsthand.
For the next two years, she would see more dead bodies than some vets saw during years in the Vietnam War. She had lived in the Bronx most of her life, but now she was seeing a part of the Bronx she didn't know existed. There were serious crimes being committed all over the place. We thought it was strange that the day before our interview, a police officer was killed one block away from where we grew up.
She told me the hardest decision she had made since she had become a police officer was getting the guts to ask me, her brother, to pull some strings to get her into the deadliest assignment in the Police Department, the Narcotics Division. Her wish was granted. This assignment put her closer to a gold shield and the possibility of meeting people who could help her career. She was told that she would earn a gold shield if she could handle the assignment, for itís not for everyone. She surprised me during this interview, for I didn't know that during her four weeks of training in narcotics undercover skills, she was going to learn some of my deepest secrets. She asked my why I had never told her that I had been in other shoot-outs and that my partner and best friend had been killed in one of them. She also said that one of the instructors told her that I would probably be able to provide her with better training than he could, for I had spent eight years undercover in the Narcotics Division, and I showed them some of the new techniques they were teaching her.
She did her first drug deal after her training. "It felt strange," she said, for she had to forget she was a police officer and act like a drug dealer. She was also nervous because the dealer kept trying to get acquainted with her. He wanted to take her to dinner or do whatever it took to get in her pants. But she made me proud when she used a technique I had taught her: She improvised; she used wit to get more information out of him. She got his home phone number and began ordering cocaine right over the telephone. Each call was taped recorded, so this guy didn't have a chance of beating the case in court.
He was so blinded by his stupidity that he talked about drugs on the phone without using code words. She said she was also able to get information from this guy about the unsolved murders of other drug dealers and gun suppliers. She even introduced other undercover officers to him as new customers. The police department was able to shut down a major South Bronx drug ring from her first drug purchases. She laughed and said,"You said women undercovers had an advantage over men." She hadnít been in the unit for four months when she walked into the middle of a shootout in broad daylight. Two drug dealers were handling their dispute ghetto style. After that incident, she realized firsthand that the unit was not to be taken lightly. She began carrying a more powerful automatic handgun. When I asked her during our interview if she would use it, she answered by asking me, "Can I see that scar on your face?"
She was notified in February that she was going to be promoted to detective. I told her she seemed very happy when she called me to say she was being promoted. She smiled and pulled out her gold shield and showed it to me. She said, " I was happy, but the politics involved took away a little bit of how I felt." Now her dream is to move up to the next rank and retire in one piece. The end of the interview allowed her to reminisce about the point in time when she realized that she wanted to become a detective, and for me to set her dreams in motion. I told her to follow me and do what I had done. She and I pinned on our shields and hugged each other. We then went into the living room and asked the kids, "Do you guys want to play cops and robbers?" They jumped up and said, "Yes!" With that response, she and I began chasing them around the house.
In the next piece, the writer uses a very short opening and ending. What are the effects of this brevity? Would you have liked to know who exactly Dr. Cooper is before she continues? Note that she uses third-person narrative, rather than a Q & A format, integrating her subject's words into her own writing when he says something particularly colorful. What do you think is the essay's thesis? Where does it appear? Do you miss, as I do, any physical description of her subject? Where might she have put it?
HANGING WITH DR. COOPER
Because he had to deal with racism and poverty, Dr. Cooper's past experiences help him understand many of the problems facing John Jay students today. Perhaps, this is why his door is always open and he is so willing to listen.
Dr. Cooper was born during the Depression in Philadelphia in 1936, the fifth of twelve children. He bluntly called his father "a disaster, who was drunk every day of his life and never worked." It was his mother who worked and struggled to hold her family together. This became impossible and the family finally had to depend on public assistance. His mother's goal and purpose in life was to keep her family together at all costs. His mother' s amazing strength drew the admiration of Frances Bozworth, director of the The Guild, a community center. The Guild tried, as Dr. Cooper describes it, "to help the poor children." It was at the Guild that he was told that he could do anything. I asked him if he had ever felt exploited. In his usual detached manner, he said, "Of course the Guild exploited me, but they gave me more than they took. They used to dress up the most presentable and well-mannered children and take them to the homes of the rich, who donated money to the center." Dr. Cooper remembers as a young boy being afraid to use the bathroom in one of those houses. He said the "toilet was so clean I was afraid to pee."
One of the social workers, Ms. Lee, a descendent of Robert E. Lee, spoke frankly of racism, of how she hated things in the South and why she had chosen her profession and moved north. Dr. Cooper remembers her fondly and said he appreciated her frankness, even at a young age. She filled his mind with thoughts of travel and told him that he needed money to do these things. She instilled in him the idea that education was the key to get these things. Along with his mother, all the workers at the Guild stressed education. He talked of the time Ms. Lee went on vacation to Europe and mailed him a letter. The letter was addressed in the now archaic format of Master John Cooper. It was the talk of the neighborhood. He said he carried her letter for years.
I asked him if he was smarter than his brothers and sisters. He answered no, they were all smart, but none wanted anything the way he did. It was his desire to fly an airplane that saved him. The first time he saw "Thunderbolt, " a Navy Aircraft fighter, he knew what he wanted to do. As he told me this story, his eyes sparkled as I imagine they did at twelve. Sailors had taken the "poor children" to dinner on their ship, and he got to sit in a plane. That was it. He said, "I knew what I wanted. They didn't have to pay me. I just wanted to fly for the Navy." It was this dream that shaped his life. In his teens he loved science fiction (today he is a Trekky), and he wanted to go into space if the U.S. ever started a space program. He told me he didn't know how, but he figured that if they had a space program, they would take airplane pilots and they world want pilots with engineering degrees. This is exactly what they wanted. He went to an all boys high school so as not to be distracted by the girls because, as he puts it, "I loved to play with the girls." All his work and energy went into making his dream a reality. In 1954, the year Brown vs. Board of Ed. was decided, he entered Penn State. As a resident of Philadelphia, all he needed were good grades in high school to be accepted. He graduated in the top fifth percentile and was accepted. While de jure educational segregation was ending in the South, Dr. Cooper was experiencing de facto segregation in the North. Dr. Cooper was one of only twelve African American students who attended Penn State. He remembers sitting in a class in which the writing assignment was "What would it feel like to be black in America?" He got up, went to the professor' s desk and asked what he should write about as the only black student in the class. He asked if he should write "what it must feel like to be white in America." Horrified, she said no. I started laughing but stopped myself. Dr. Cooper told me, "Go ahead, laugh at the woman' s stupidity." School went from bad to worse, except for ROTC, which was mandatory at the time. This, of course, he loved. The officers took him up in a plane and let him sit in the cockpit. He described the day he made the decision to leave Penn State. He was playing
Wagner in the music room, the wind was blowing, and lightning and thunder filled the sky. The stage was set, and this would be the night he decided if he stayed in school or left. Dr. Cooper decided to leave. He packed a bag, snuck away like a thief in the night, and headed for the bus station. His mother was heartbroken, but didn't say anything. He was crazed for about six weeks. His goal was within his grasp and he had given it up. Years later, his brother Allen told him, "It just wasn't the right time. You weren't ready." When I asked him if he regretted leaving school, he said he regretted losing his dream, but his brother was right. He just wasn't ready. Along with bad timing was pressure. Every mother in the neighborhood came to wish him luck when he was leaving for school. They told him what it meant to his own mother, what it meant to them. It was as if their own son was going away to college, the first in the neighborhood. Dr. Cooper, thinking back, said it was too much pressure. He felt as if he were going to school not only for himself, but also for his mother and for every other mother in the neighborhood.
He thought that by joining the Army, he would be able to fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot. So he entered the Army in 1956, about three years after it was integrated. The Army gives a battery of tests to judge what job a person will be best suited for. Dr. Cooper scored about thirty points above average. His commanding officer thought he would be a good candidate for Officer Candidate School. Other commanders, hearing this, set out to sabotage him. They did not want their unit to send a black man to 0fficer Candidate School. This, of course, was easy for the commanding officers to accomplish: they goaded him until he had a fight. As a result, he spent three months in the brig and hated it. He was discharged from the service without ever learning how to fly. Technically, the armed forces were desegregated, but the reality was that racism prevented Dr. Cooper from ever learning to fly.
Returning to Philadelphia, he got a job as a cab driver and was trying to decide what he wanted to do with his life. Twice his dream had motivated him, and now it was anger that would motivate him. One day, he was delivering blood to a hospital and recognized the doctor as someone with whom he had attended Penn State. The doctor refused to recognize him. Dr. Cooper describes it this way: "This doctor was someone I used to drink beer with, and now he's big shit and I'm no shit." The knowledge that all his friends from Penn State had became successful and the rudeness of the doctor inspired him to finish school.
Dr. Cooper returned to college in 1960 and graduated from Temple University. He was the only member of his family to graduate from college, but his brother Allen did a remarkable thing at the age of seventeen that illustrates the ambivalence of the times about race relations: Working for Western Union, he bought himself a piano and taught himself to play. He then decided he wanted to compose music and attend the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Frances Bozworth arranged for Allen to meet Mrs. Efraim Zimbalist, Director of the Institute. Allen convinced Mrs. Zimbalist to agree that if he could write a concerto, he would be admitted to the Institute. Not knowing what a concerto was, he went to the library and learned. He wrote one and performed it, confiding to Dr. Cooper that "it was the worst music he had ever played." But Mrs. Zimbalist was impressed that someone without formal training could find out what a concerto is and actually compose one. Dr. Cooper said one of the greatest thrills in his life was when an opera by his brother was performed and conducted by his brother. "I just couldn't believe that was my brother conducting his own music." Allen was touted as a great composer. During the civil rights era, there was a push for black artists, musicians, painters, and writers. Allen was going to be the composer people would push. He was groomed and sent to Italy, where his rent was paid for him. But Allen wanted to marry a white woman named Pat. Those trying to bring him to prominence begged him to wait till he had made a name for himself. Allen wouldn't wait, and as Dr. Cooper said, "As those doors opened for him, they slammed shut."
Dr. Cooper remembered the era, the marches, particularly the March on Washington, which left him with a feeling of power and exhilaration. We ended the interview discussing his graduation from graduate school. He received his diploma with "John L. Cooper, Ph.D." printed on it. He handed it to his mother, telling her she deserved it. He went on to become the Chairman of the African American Studies Department at John Jay College, a position he held for five years, and to publish several books.
Dr. Cooper's journey was just one of many. The obstacles posed by racism and poverty were faced by many others. He looks back on his life without resentment or hate. He understands what happened, why it happened, and who was responsible, but keeps everything in perspective. Even his father, for whom he has no feelings, he is able to understand, although not forgive. For every person who tried to deny him something, there was someone else to help him. He is one of the few people I know who carries nobaggage. What is done is done, and he moves on.
In the next piece, the writer states her purpose right away, but the opening is not as attention-getting as the rest of the paper. How could she have improved it? Note that she gives us her subject's background before launching into her Q & A, and she intersperses third-person commentary among the questions and answers. Also note where she puts the physical description of her subject. In writing his answers, she also tries to be faithful to her subject's way of speaking by quoting a few of the vulgarities and slang expressions he uses, but she has edited some out. How effective do you find her ending?
PROFILE OF A DRUG USER
In today's society, drugs are a major issue. They exist in almost every part of the world and affect many. There is a misconception that drugs and drug users originate in poor neighborhoods. I have decided to interview a young drug user who lives in a middle/upper class neighborhood to prove that drugs play a part in other classes as well. Besides learning how it feels to be a drug user, I would like to learn more about how drugs affect those in my community.
I live in a calm area of Queens known as Astoria. The residents of Astoria are predominantly white and of European descent (Italians, Greeks, etc.). One would never think that drug use is common in this area, but unfortunately, it is. In order to learn more about drug use and those who use drugs, I decided to go straight to the root of the problem.
Everyone in my neighborhood knows who the drug users and dealers are, but nobody gets involved. The residents just go about their own lives. They don't understand that even though drugs are illegal, unfortunately, there is an increasingly large "drug culture." This "drug culture" is rapidly growing throughout the world and is mostly composed of young drug users. In order to learn more about this drug culture, I decided to interview a long-time member from my neighborhood. John (not his real name) is a twenty-three-year-old white male who has been involved with drugs for the majority of his life. He is a drug user and a former drug dealer in the area. According to John, he has "done every drug that's out there at least once."
Getting John to speak to me wasn't hard. I knew him from around the neighborhood, and he was always a perfect gentleman. Although I could never tell when he was high, he had some respect and wouldn't get high out in public.
I offered to take John to lunch at Neptune Diner, a local diner, and he agreed. As we walked into the diner, he held every door open and invited me to enter first. He was wearing a Nike sweat suit with matching sneakers. On his head, all that was visible was light brown stubble from hair that was apparently trying to grow in before he shaved it off again. He was clean shaven and his baby blue eyes shined every time he smiled. He was the portrait of an average young man who would be willing to help an old lady across the street. As he read the menu, I noticed that the ends of his eyebrows had light traces of lines shaved into them.
Around the neighborhood, John is known as "Line." He got this name from, as he says, "being king of the white lines." His "tag" (nickname) is visible on handball court walls around town. Line works as a plumber, making roughly $400-500 weekly.
When I told him that I wanted him to be my subject for a profile, he seemed honored that I would want to learn about his life. His exact words were, "I never thought you cared!"
Line turned to drugs at an early age. He was twelve years old when he began to smoke "weed."
"When I was young, I played outside and did all that s--t that little boys do, but I got bored of it and went to hang out with the big guys. Since they were older than me, they did other things in order to have fun. I started drinking, but it wasn't enough for me. My parents were in the process of getting divorced. That sounds like the typical family with problems. Anyway, I hated being at home. I used to hang out all night and wouldn't come home until dawn--just drinking and partying. The alcohol was cool for a little boy, but all the guys were into hard-core drugs. I remember one night we were just chillin', and the boys were talking about puffing [smoking marijuana]. To prove that I wasn't a little punk, I took a puff and, man, that was the s--t. From then on, I began to try more and more drugs, each time making sure they [drugs] were stronger than the last."
Sandra: When did you start basing?
Line: When I was about fourteen. I don't know why I began to smoke crack, but I know the high you get off it is unbelievable! It could last for hours and hours. It was cheaper than coke too.
When I asked Line about his parents, he got a little bit edgy and didn't really want to get into it:
Line: My parents were good people who thought they were bringing me up the right way, They never had time to spend at home because they were always working. The desire for money brought the family further and further apart. They hardly spent time with me and my sister or with each other.
Sandra: What about school?
Line: School was just there. I hated going, but I went sometimes. I went because I had nowhere else to go. I hated my house, and that's why I chose the streets. I might not be brainy smart, but I'm street smart and that's what counts when it comes to surviving in the real world.
After his parents finally separated, Line went to live with his mother until he was seventeen. His mother threw him out of the house one night after he had come home drunk. By this time, his sister had moved out of the house and was living on her own, so Line moved in with her:
"My sister had her own crib so I went to live with her. At this time, I was doing some heavy lines--coke. That's where "Line" came from. I was king of the lines. I've been living with my sister up in Ditmar's ever since."
When talking about work, Line gets serious. He says, "I don't f--k with work. No job means no money, kid!"
"And no drugs?" I asked.
"Chill! I don't need that much money for drugs," he answered.
I wondered if Line had ever gone to work high. He said that he's gone to work high but not "completely f--ked up." He doesn't want to risk losing his job because "that's all [he's] got that's worth something." Without a job, Line would be back on the streets.
I was interested in learning how Line began dealing drugs and why he had stopped. I was aware of the fact that dealing drugs does bring in a lot of money:
Sandra: How did you get into dealing drugs?
Line: Well, aside from basing and getting high, I was also concerned with my financial situation. I thought that I would rake in some quick dough by dealing. It wasn't heavy dealing, but it was enough to provide me with my stash and then some for fly gear!
Sandra: Why did you stop?
Line: See, dealing can get pretty stressful. Like any other job, there is competition. Besides making quick money, I also made some quick enemies and I was robbed--quickly! Even though I wasn't "big time," I still had props and made it on my own. You know how people are when they see a new kid on the block making loot. Jealousy takes over and that could be deadly. By dealing, my life was constantly in danger from other dealers who also wanted loot. I was wasting all the merchandise myself. You could say I was f--king myself over.
Sandra: How old were you when you started dealing?
Line: About eighteen.
Sandra: Are you aware of the fact that drug use can be very harmful and deadly?
Line: Hey, you gotta go sometime! Some people will turn around and say that's the mentality of a druggie, but it's not as if I got much to live for. My life is drugs and as long as I'm not bothering anybody and nobody's bothering me, then I'm fine. One night I did get hurt and I was high. It was on New Year's at Times Square. The boys and I were chillin', waiting for midnight and some drunk f--k threw a bottle in the air. I was too high to notice that the bottle was coming right at me. Well, the next thing I knew, I was in the Emergency Room with a bandage on my head. That s--t wasn't cool.
Sandra: What about little kids? Do you approve of them doing the same things you did?
Line: I don't support the use of drugs. In my case, I began with drugs at an early age and my body just grew accustomed to it. I do see little boys out there trying to be cool by smoking and I make sure that I give them a good kick in the ass as I pass them by. They shouldn't be doing that s--t when they got a family at home waiting for them to come home for dinner.
John's early drug use causes him to think about the new generation of teenagers involved with drugs. He knows what teens who use drugs go through, and it's not a pretty picture. He doesn't approve of teens using drugs, and he himself preferred not to have even begun.
In Astoria, drug use is common but not exactly seen out in public, as in poor neighborhoods where drug users have no shame. We cannot tell the drug users apart from the regular working men/women in Astoria. The person whom you would least expect to be on drugs is actually doing drugs behind closed doors.
Although help is available for those on drugs, some avoid it because they feel they have nothing to live for when they are clean. In Astoria, we cannot really reach out and help those on drugs because it is hard to tell them apart from the regular people. Drug use in every social class should not go on disregarded. This problem will not go away if we shut our eyes and ignore it. We need to get to the root of the problem in order to solve it.
In the next piece, the writer begins by talking about her own feelings: the change in her own attitude toward drug-users and her guilt at using his life for a school report. What effect do these revelations have on you as a reader? Note also that she fully develops her subject's background before she begins her Q & A with him. In these background paragraphs, she uses an occasional quote. In writing his answers, she also tries to be faithful to her subject's way of speaking by quoting a few of the vulgarities and slang expressions he uses, but she has edited some out. He is such a vivid story-teller and he was so honest with her that she had little trouble making her piece strong. Do you think she has a thesis?
HANGING BY A THREAD
Drug users to me were fools who are weak and unintelligent. I could not imagine an intelligent person dying from the use of drugs. I thought after watching hundreds of people dying from drugs, how can such a huge number of people still persist in using them? My perceptions of drug use eventually came to a crash when my friend John, who wants to remain anonymous, trustworthily shared his experience with me. I now have a more considerate attitude towards drug addicts after listening to Johnís life of drug use.
John to me was a very peculiar character who intrigued me in unimaginable ways. He is not the type of person whom society would view as a "typical human being," which made him a perfect candidate for my profile. We met in Greenwich Village for dinner after school to talk about his drug use. John had no idea that the reason for our meeting was to gain information for my school profile. He told me that he felt honored that I cared enough to listen to his "crazy life." After hearing this, I felt like an insensitive jerk, and I wished that I was not doing the interview for the purpose of a school report. I decided to ignore school that night and just sit and talk with him. The following day, I explained the reason for my interest in his life and sadly apologized. John, to my surprise, was understanding and volunteered to be a candidate for my profile. We made plans to meet at the Staten Island ferry terminal on the Manhattan side.
I met John at 7:00 pm. His breath smelled of liquor and his eyes were fiery red (he told me he had been smoking and drinking a couple of hours before meeting me). I was disappointed because I needed to get my paper done. However, he turned out to be very alert and responsive. We decided to take the ferry to Staten Island. It was my first time on the Staten Island ferry, so I was thrilled with excitement. We laughed and talked for the half-hour ride.
I found out that John is twenty-two years old, and he was born in Bayridge, Brooklyn. He lived there for two years. His earliest memories of it are from his childhood and his many visits there with his father. John considers the area to be a middle-class neighborhood of Greeks, Jews, and Italians. After the birth of his sister, the family moved to Sunnyside, Staten Island, which he said is "a super-suburban neighborhood with behind-the-door stories--BAD STORIES."
After twelve years of marriage, Johnís parents separated. John now lives with his mother, a college graduate, whom he sees as "a super-religious, self-righteous Sunday school teacher, who is now a Eucharistic Minister." John believes his motherís career consists of "cutting up Jesus and draining the blood from his body to quench the followersí thirst." His father drove an oil truck and is now a drug dealer.
During his childhood, John never had a close relationship with his parents. He said cynically, "My mom and dad usually left me to the television. My parents never really stopped to play or to talk with my sister and me." John and his sister would go where they wanted to go without problems from their parents. He never considered himself the tough kid or the sports "freak" his dad wanted him to be. "I wasnít the student my mother was either," he said. "She was a nerd, an honor student." John never thought that he would become a drug addict.
John was not the only drug user in his family. He stated, "My mother told me that she tried pot as a young woman, but my father," he sighed with a sullen look on his face, "lied about his use of drugs. He used to freak out when we were around him while he was smoking. I later found out that it was because his f--king pipe was filled with pot. I was confused and disappointed about my fatherís drug use, so I spoke to my mom about it. She defended him by saying he needed it to sleep." John turned around and looked deep into my eyes and said, "Can you believe it? Parents say that drugs are bad, and my mom had a defense for my fatherís drug use. After that I figured it was okay to use it."
Q: When did you first start using drugs?
A: Oh, I donít know really. I guess around the eighth grade, if that sounds right? I used to chill in Colve Lake Park with my friends. One of them, Dave, was filthy rich. He was our supplier. Another girl because of her mature build would buy us hard-core four-packs and pot. We would just sit around and get high after school.
We were interrupted by a jolt; the ferry stopped and we were in Staten Island. John took out a pack of cigarettes and began to smoke. We walked for about five minutes. We went into a bar called the Cargo Cafe on Bay Street. We met a few of his friends, Flood and Mary. A couple of seconds into their conversation, John began to pull at my jacket, signalling that he was about to sit down. He muttered as we sat down at the bar, "Thank God he left. He would be talking me to death." He ordered a cognac, and I ordered coffee. After a few sips, we resumed our conversation.
Q: What kinds of situations or experiences have you had with drugs?
A: Well, one night a few friends and I bought a half-ounce bag of angel dust and went to Floodís house. We had a f--king ill-ass coke party. We later went to 117th Street in Harlem to buy some more angel dust, riding on the side of the train. On our way back to Daveís apartment, my friend Paul spilled the dope on the steps of Floodís apartment building. We were so hungry for it we went down on our hands and knees and snorted it up. I even shot up with my motherís holy water one night when she got into her religion.
Q: Why did you do that?
A: To mock her.
He ordered another drink and took a long slow sip.
Q: Did you consider yourself an addict at that point in your life?
A: No, but I guess I was because my dream was to win the lottery so I could buy all the drugs in the world.
Q: How did you get your drug supply?
A: I used to sell the coke I stole from my father to feed my needs for other drugs. I did not like to do coke; it f--ked up my d--k and created problems in my sex life.
Q: Did you have any problems in school because of your drug use?
He smiled with a glow in his eyes.
A: Of course!
At this point John requested that we sit somewhere more comfortable. We sat at a table with a view of the city. The waitress asked if we wanted something to eat, and we both refused. John for some strange reason was snotty to her. He said, "She is very rude. She always interrupts my conversation whenever I visit this bar." We returned to the interview.
Q: What kinds of problems did you have?
A: I messed up in school miserably. As a freshman at the College of Staten Island, my grade point average was 3.37. I later transferred to Oneonta, but I got so f--ked up I was kicked out. My grade point average was in the negative numbers, baby. Thatís how I was living. I almost ODíed once. It was a weird, f--king experience.
Q: Why do you look at an experience close to death in that context?
A: Because during it all, I could actually feel my breath leave my body. It was like nothing I have ever experienced before. I donít know. (He paused.) It was weird.
John was employed at Everything Yogurt Corporation in Staten Island at the time of his near-death encounter. He said he was a "salad technician extraordinaire" at the age of nineteen. In July of 1994, John and a few of his friends, Spook and Geo, met at Tompkins Square Park. John said, "My parents were in their own world most of the time, so I did not need an excuse to go where I wanted." He ordered another drink and took another cigarette.
Q: Come on, John, why do you have to smoke and drink so much?
A: I just like it.
There were only three cigarettes left in the pack at this time. John laughed and said, "I bought it this morning."
Q: How much do you smoke per day?
A: I sometimes smoke one and a half to two packs a day.
During this time we were interrupted by a tap on the glass. It was a homeless man. John left to speak with him and offered him a cigarette. He returned, saying how bad he feels for such unfortunate persons.
Q: What else happened in your near-death experience?
A: Oh, yes, Iím sorry for the interruption. We bought four bags of Silver Bullet brand
heroin at the corner of Houston and B in the Village. We met another friend Dave, and we went to his apartment. Geo took the first hit. I always bought the f--king needle, and he always goes first. Geo got one shot, Spook got one shot, but Dave refused because he was not into it. Dave and Geo were in a band, so they started to play Daveís guitars. My heroin bag did not look as full as everyone elseís was, but there was more than I expected because some was in the corner of the bag. I took it all. I got f--ked up because I was smoking crack earlier. The last thing I remembered was looking at the sun on the blinds. I was told that I fell and knocked over a lamp. My friends said that they thought I was joking, until they saw me turning blue, so they called the ambulance. The people in the ambulance told me that they thought I would not make it because my heart had stopped beating. I was also told that I received saline and an adrenaline shot. I woke up hearing screams. My father walked into the room, and for the first time, I felt joy to see him.
Q: Speaking of your parents, what were their reactions when they found out about this?
A: My mom was pissed and angry as a motherf--ker. My dad merely asked if I was okay.
He added with a look of deep compassion in his eyes, "My sister was crying and I told her I did not need her tears right now. I told her to pull herself together because I need her as a friend and not really a sister. I felt as a friend she would understand the situation more."
Q: What made you choose to become clean?
A: My sister was one of the reasons why I wanted to become clean. I could not stand to see the look on her face when she was crying for me that day at the hospital. I love her to death. I had to quit my job at the yogurt store and go to rehab. It was like a country club there. I went swimming, I went to the gym, and there was even a White Castle around there. Rehab was a drag, so I tried to kill myself. My life felt worthless.
Johnís suicide attempt was unsuccessful due to a comment made to him by an elderly man. He stated with a very solid look on his face, "Life experience is all that matters. I was going to kill myself, and a guy asked me if my life was a movie, would I walk out in the middle of it. I guess my love for the movies is the reason why his words meant something to me." He sighed and said, "So what if my life sucks. It is still not worth walking out on, and maybe if you fall, you can fly again."
Q: Do you have any advice for teenagers in society who have the same curiosity that you had growing up?
A: Well, I do not consider myself a role model. If I am, I should not go on thinking that I am because there is so much ego in it. Who am I to say what is right? Everyone has their own movie in which to live their life, to make errors, and to choose their own path. This is what is wrong with humans. We project our guilt onto each other, or just onto the world. Humans think of themselves as the only life there is, but life is everything. Projecting negativity onto the world is f--king disgusting!
Johnís experience may sound like a soap opera, but strangely it is real. I was in a state of shock, upset and confused after listening to his life story. I wanted to know why John, who is so book-smart, chose to live this kind of life. In all my life of talking with people, Johnís life was the most difficult to comprehend. I guess it is because I love him as a friend and wish that what he told me was not real. I pray that one day John will realize that life is sweet, no matter how hard it might seem through the long struggle.
In the next piece, the writer begins with his general info, then proceeds to his Q & A. Note his brief but sensuous description of the day he met his subject and his description of her (4th & 5th paragraphs). Would you have liked more on her physical appearance? His interviewee is particularly eloquent, so he was able to let her words fill his piece and finish it on a strong note.
WISE BEFORE HER TIME
Michael S. Bartlett
In June, 1981,the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) published the first reports of a mysterious disease that was affecting five men in Los Angeles. These men suffered from high fevers, weight loss and unusual lung infections. By the end of 1981, nearly one hundred people in the U.S. had died of this disease, which came to be known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. By June, 1991, hundreds of thousands of people diagnosed with AIDS had died.
The CDC estimates that over two million Americans are infected with human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which is the inevitable cause of AIDS. The time that it takes to develop the disease, the incubation period, has been known to last ten or more years. Researchers predict that a high percentage of those infected with HIV will develop AIDS and eventually die from the disease. Because of the thousands of people who have already developed AIDS and the vast numbers of future cases predicted, we can be sure that this devastating disease will have a profound effect on the nation's health care system. Consider the economic toll that AIDS will take, and has taken, on hospitals, on insurance companies, and on American life in general. We are in the grip of a crisis, yet, too often the victims of this disease are forgotten and turned into pariahs--outcasts living on the fringes of society.
HIV/AIDS, as I have learned, is a disease about many things. In some cases, people with the disease are chronic drug abusers, caught up in a vicious cycle of cynicism, despair and denial. Some have the benefit of families, while others are not so lucky. They are kicked to the wayside, written out of their existing families, abandoned to die. Surely it is not easy to bear the severe emotional toll wrought by cases such as these. While people with HIV do not experience rejection every single day of their lives, a number have had their lives touched by some incident involving a sense of rejection or stigma of some kind. Being diagnosed with HIV can lead to feelings of deep isolation. It tests all our relationships, especially familial ones. Family and friends have to develop new ways of coping with the infected person and the inevitable loss of their loved one.
It was unseasonably cold, but nothing could deter me from my appointed task--I was meeting Monika. I pulled my jacket on a little more tightly and decided to wait a few more minutes before I beeped her again. I cursed as the wind cut my breath, but I renewed my resolve to get the interview. It's not every day that someone allows you access to her innermost thoughts, to her truest feelings about life and the world. I thought about Monika's courage in sharing with me, a casual friend, a part of her life that is so personal. As you have probably guessed, Monika is living with HIV. I had a gut feeling that our interview would be wrenching.
Monika is from Grenada and is twenty-five years old. She lives on her own in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. She has known that she has HIV for six years, having acquired it, she assumes, from her boyfriend, who was once a drug user. Today, Monika and I talked over a good stiff drink of brandy.
Mike: What was your background like?
Monika: I was a very protected child in an "ideal" family. I was good in school. I had success in everything I did. On the outside, I had to be the luckiest child on earth. But I never felt that way. I was very unhappy. I felt that this was no life. Everything was so on track--straight, straight, straight. It was sickening.
Mike: Are you kidding? Some people would have loved to be in your situation. Isnít that an ungrateful statement that you just made?
Monika: No, not at all. Thatís just the way I feel. Things outside my "perfect" world were very attractive to me--like being with someone who had "bad" experiences. My boyfriend was an ex-drug user. He was tested positive. In 1985, nobody knew how to handle the disease. There were contradictions in information. I was quite naive and refused to think about it. I infected myself half knowingly.
Mike: God! Thatís a heavy burden to bear. What made you finally decide to go and get tested?
Monika: I wanted to know. After a while, that cloud of denial lifts, and you begin to think about how you are going to fight to stay alive and healthy. Itís all really about a positive state of mind. I took the test and it was positive. Then there was a time of fighting in my family. I was stressed out! My illness broke down my parentsí whole nice world. It was very hard for them. I wanted to show them that I could handle it, that I was strong. My family had warned me, "Donít get involved with a drug user." It was a breakdown of everything. It wasnít that we didnít have contact, but we just didnít talk about it--IT was taboo. I have to pretend that I am just accepting it and that I can deal with it. My family is overprotective. I know that this is how they cope with it because itís very hard. I just let them--if it gives them the feeling that they can do something, I accept it, but I refuse to be their little baby.
Mike: Damn, Monika! Iíve heard of living on the goddamned edge...Why would you go out with a guy like that? Even if he was a little rough around the edges, he could have been at least drug-free! Didnít you think all the fuss they [the federal government] were making was for real? All those television commercials. They were really bringing AIDS education to the forefront. Didnít you think about that?
Monika: Yeah, I know, so just call me crazy, but I thought I was in love. We had our ups and downs, and I even broke up with him. I realize now how destructive our relationship was, but he was able to convince me then that he was clean. One year later, my boyfriend started to take drugs again, to shoot heroin. Back then--and I canít understand why--I told him, "If you take drugs, then both of us will." Thatís how dependent I felt on him. And so I started to shoot heroin for about two years. HIV or AIDS was never a subject to us, it was just suppressed. When you have drugs, everything is okay, so why think about HIV? It didnít come close to me.
Mike: Okay, so when was your turning point? Everyone has a moment in their life of absolute clarity. What made you decide to step out of yourself and look at the way your life was going?
Monika: The whole shit changed when my boyfriend died suddenly. He didnít die of AIDS. He died on drugs, and his body was just gone. It was a very big shock to me because I loved that man and now he was gone. I was standing there all alone with a monkey on my back, and then all the problems fell on me.
Mike: How did you cope?
Monika: I had to find my way out of drugs, out of denying my situation concerning HIV. This was four years after my test result. It took me about one year to fight my drug addiction. It was a very hard time for me. I was very self-destructive. Society didnít fuckiní help me when I needed it. They ostracized me. I started an apprenticeship, and for two years I worked. Then suddenly everything broke down. I just stopped, dropped out. I couldnít work. When my bosses found out that I was HIV-positive, they wanted me to leave, so I left. Itís that stigma, that rejection that makes people with HIV/AIDS turn to suicide and/or drugs. Iím not saying that I donít share in the blame, but society doesnít make the situation any easier.
Mike: Youíre right! Thereís a saying that goes, "If youíre not part of the solution, youíre part of the problem." Thereís hardly enough information out there about the everyday lives of people living with AIDS or HIV. How is your everyday life affected by your illness?
Monika: Itís a total lifestyle change with some areas being more problematic than others. Sex is a problem for me. My boyfriend and I never had to practice safer sex because we were told that it wouldnít matter--that a few thousand viruses more or less didnít matter. So we never thought about safer sex. I say safer because no sex act is completely safe--it can only be made safer. Anyway, afterwards it became a problem. I met many men with such a fear of being infected that it wasnít fun to have sex. It was just explaining, apologizing, "Iím sorry, Iím HIV." My sexual life just stopped. I was so depressed that I didnít have the desire for sex.
Mike: How do you find the strength to tell someone you love or plan to be intimate with your health status?
Monika: Thatís never easy, but thatís why you have to pick and choose your partners so carefully. I wish Iíd practiced then what Iím preaching now! Thereís a question of guilt. When I look back, I have to keep myself from feeling guilty that I infected myself. Sex has come to have an overwhelming association with guilt and responsibility. I think itís atypical womanís role--being responsible for someone else. Itís there when I have sex. What about the condom, if it bursts? Thereís always some risk. The only responsible thing to do is not to have sex. Thatís very sad. Sex is, for me, a question of life and death. If I want to survive, I have to be there with my whole body. Otherwise, it isnít life. I canít go into a monastery or some kind of leper colony--thatís what I donít want to do. I think it will change, but it will be hard work to get there.
Mike: How does this illness affect your friendships with other people?
Monika: It took me about two to three years to talk to my best girlfriends about AIDS. I always had the feeling that I was bringing problems into other peopleís lives. There are only very few people--you seem to be one--that can really get into it. The others see the facts and they tell nice sentences: "Oh, what a pit. I wish I could find the words...." Often, they treat me like a child: "Oh, poor Monika." I donít want to be treated like that. I wouldnít be doing this interview right now if I felt that you were patronizing. Itís bad enough that you feel as though you are a living problem--just a problem on legs. Thereís no need to be subjected to someone patronizing you. You feel that you have to apologize: "Iím sorry, you want to have fun, but thereís a problem. You want to live, and I talk about death." That doesnít fit together with people my age. They think of instant gratification, not about dying.
Mike: How does being around other people with HIV or AIDS affect you?
Monika: Sometimes I think I canít bear it any longer. Itís too much, itís too hard. Too much dying, too much suffering, too much fear. Thatís always there when someoneís dying. That fear of your own death and suffering. In the last two years, Iíve heard of so many people dying and suffering. A friend of mine died about six months ago. It is a struggle not to break down. But all this confrontation of sickness and death has its positive side too. It frees you from a certain fear of death. You can see how beautiful it can be when someone says, "Iím ready to go and I donít want to suffer anymore." It can be such a peaceful experience. Itís just the good-bye that hurts.
Mike: Have you thought about what comes after you die?
Monika: Sure, but I think Iíll jinx it if I give voice to it. I think that you need some religious thoughts or questions. I have to connect with something thatís bigger. Some people call it God, some call it love or the higher potential. When you are faced with death, you ask these questions. You have to connect with something just to get a little more strength or power. After all these years, I have a great desire to enjoy myself, yet my situation doesnít allow me to. I know that there are people who derive energy out of all this suffering. I donít feel that I am one of those. Iím more depressed by it than activated.
Mike: Overall, how have you changed as a person since your diagnosis?
Monika: I have changed a lot in the things that I am doing and in how I think. There are things that I enjoy completely, like sitting in Prospect Park in the summer time, watching the children play. Itís my aim to be more aware of whatís going on with me and around me. Iíd like to be more in the moment, to forget about the future. Iím beginning to see time in a different dimension, and I think that my life has gained much more depth. When I took drugs, I had long periods when I was really closed to everything on the outside. Iíve learned that there are steps, that I can learn. I just changed my apartment and I am on the government cheese [public assistance] for right now. I am very afraid to think about the future. I know that plans and positive actions can give you power, but Iím not at that stage. I is so hard to make plans because one day....Itís something that holds you back.
Mike: How do you feel physically at the moment?
Monika: Physically, my body works--everythingís in order. I donít feel unhealthy, but I canít use my whole energy. Always there is a load of depression. I want to change, and I will work on it. Thereís gonna be changes that Iím going to go through, but just having the opportunity to look at things I would never have looked at in a different life, I donít know...itís like a chance or a challenge.
Mike: What do you do to stay healthy?
Monika: When I was diagnosed, I was one of those people who wanted to read everything and have as much information as possible. You have to know how to protect yourself, to know how you could pass this illness to other people. Thereís a certain moral responsibility that comes with having HIV. One of the first things that I did was get a social worker. There are several organizations, like the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force, that can be of great assistance in this area. My social worker sent me all sorts of literature on diet and on other health problems that I might encounter, like oral thrush [an opportunistic infection] and skin conditions. She also sends me newsletters from time to time with the latest news about treatments and developments in the fight against HIV/AIDS. My life is now a series of mantras, of positive affirmations--the sort of things you can say to yourself in the morning to get yourself through the day. All of these things go hand in hand with proper diet, proper rest, and basically trying to live as stress-free as possible. This is almost impossible to do in New York City.
Mike: I know what you mean. New York can be pretty tough. Yet you seem so calm, so animated as we talk. As long as I have known you, youíve had a great sense of humor. How do you manage to be so cheerful in the face of this illness?
Monika: Well, right now itís the brandy talking. They say you tell the truth when youíre drinking. But seriously, the most dramatic change in my personality has been that Iíve lost a little bit of my youth. I feel older. Everythingís a bit more serious now. When youíre HIV positive, you say, "Well, I can cope with HIV, so I certainly can deal with this or that problem." You have to build up a real strength to keep a sense of humor. I believe that Iíd die that much sooner without it. Sometimes I wonder, though, if that strength cuts you off from other people. I find that I have to become almost superhuman to control my emotions. Christ, if I break down, then everybody else will. I really appreciate the value of having people around who love me. Everything becomes so much more pressing. You havenít got forever anymore. Thatís why a sense of humor is important. You need it for sanity.
Mike: You know, listening to you, I am amazed at how my problems pale in comparison to yours. Right now, my biggest problem is conducting this interview and assembling a body of work that will have made your time worth it. I wonder, and I hope that this is not getting too personal, but is there someone special in your life right now? I mean, you appear so strong to me, but I know that no one can make it out there alone.
Monika: Oh, donít try to candy-coat the question. Actually, itís a very reasonable one because human nature is somewhat voyeuristic. People have this need to look in on the lives of others. Iíve told you quite a bit about myself, so whatís the difference? Iím not offended in the least. Anyway, back to your question. I do have a partner who is not HIV-positive. At the time, I felt very guilty about even thinking about another relationship. I spoke with a counselor and got lots of support from a womenís group that I was going to. I started to date him and told him very quickly--I didnít intend to, but I felt as though I was drawing him into something that he had a right to know about, which was the fact that I have a life- threatening illness and Iíve had it for some time.
Mike: How did he react to your revelation?
Monika: I was very fortunate that "Robert" had known a woman who had HIV before. He hadnít been involved with her, but he was very informed of the risks. He went away and thought about it--thatís what I wanted him to do. He said his major concern was not about contracting the virus, but getting involved with someone who might die. But he decided that whatever time we had together would be worth it. He really wants to be part of my life--I canít get rid of him for love or money. I felt an immense sense of relief in Robertís decision. I also felt a powerful sense of gratitude that a man can still see me as a sexy human being who is worth loving. You lose a lot of your self-confidence when you are diagnosed. You wonder whether you are still a worthwhile person to love. Heís the person who has helped me the most. He loves me and is not frightened by me. For the first time in a long, long time, I actually feel like a whole person. I look at my mortality as simply an inevitable part of life. I just take on one day at a time and try to live a clean, productive life. I try to seize each and every day because tomorrow is not promised to any of us--whether you are HIV-positive or not.
Mike: Well, Monika, this has certainly been an enlightening interview. People like you are the real experts on what itís like to be afflicted with HIV/AIDS. I want to thank you for sharing with me and my readers your fears and joys, and how you have come to terms with your illness. You are truly wise before your time. Good luck and God speed!
Monika: Thanks for letting me share. I hope that people will realize that having HIV/AIDS is no sin, nor is it only a gay manís disease. It affects everyone. I am living proof that this disease knows no color or economic barriers. Most importantly, and I want to say this directly to others who are similarly afflicted, although our lives will never be the same, we must not forget to laugh and have the strength to live. There comes a point in dealing with HIV or AIDS where YOU have to take control and decide to live, and, like every other human being, one day youíll die. Iíve made the choice that I will not die of AIDS. It no longer has power over me.
In this final piece, the writer intersperses her more general remarks about employment in between her Q & A with her interviewee. After handing this is, she confessed that her interviewee is her fiancť, but she cleverly disguises this fact by having him speak to her as if she didn't already know the answers to her questions. While it is dangerous to choose as subject someone you know very well, her objective tone helped her write about him dispassionately.
AMERICA: ON THE DOWN SIDE
American companies are discovering a new concept, a new way to save money--downsizing. The word is not a new one. It was first used in the 1970's to save money and referred to the way cars were becoming more compact. It was not until the 1980's that the word became a part of our language in reference to humans. The idea may not be new, but the current trend in downsizing is. Middle management personnel are the new targets. Their jobs are being eliminated completely. It seems as if every day large well-known corporations are eliminating jobs. Just to name a few, AT&T, IBM, and Nynex have eliminated at least one-third of their workforce over the last couple of years. The rationale companies are giving are all technical and product oriented. Most companies say that they needed to lay off workers in order to become more competitive. Or others say that it was imperative for them to acquire a new piece of machinery that could do the job in half the time,and with a quarter of the previous manpower. In the l98O's, the unemployed usually represented blue-collar workers and people with less than a high school diploma. But today, white-collar job elimination is neck and neck with blue-collar job elimination. Companies are realizing that a computer can usually replace people and that in the end it will save money. For instance, for every automatic teller machine in service, the jobs of three hundred tellers were lost. Soon the human teller will be extinct. And all of those jobless people will be fiercely competing against one another. Sometimes the idea of being jobless is an idea one could never imagine. But one gentleman, February 29, 1996 is one day that he will never forget. Here is his story:
On this particular morning, Carlos D. woke up earlier than usual, around 5:30 am. He slid from beneath the warm blanket to pad across the cold bedroom floor and begin dressing. At 6:00 am, he kissed his fiancee goodbye and left for his job as distribution manager for a clothing company based in upstate New York. He left early because one of the stores needed help doing inventory. He was going to squeeze in some time there before the managers meeting started in the city. He arrived at the warehouse in New Jersey about a quarter ro seven and started his day. At approximately 10:30 am, his supervisor, along with a woman from personnel, came in. They shifted around uncomfortably for a few minutes. Carlos felt that there was something wrong but didnít say anything. Then they extended their apologies and hit him with the news: "Carlos, Iím sorry to be the one to tell you this, but today is your last day with the company." Carlos remembers their words verbatim.
Tevonda: How did you feel about the layoff and the way you were laid off?
Carlos D: I was hurt, shocked and angry. I was told that it wouldnít happen like that. No, I was assured that I would be given advance notice. I didnít even get that. That is the main problem, the part that I donít understand. They told me that it would be three to six months before the layoff, and that they would let me know at least two months in advance....I didnít even get two daysí notice. I put two years into this job, which, by the way, no one else wanted, just to be fired by the same people who praised me every day.
Tevonda: You say that you were with the company for two years?
Carlos D: Yeah, but it was actually two and a half years. I first started out there as a stockroom manager. But I busted my butt to get to the position that I had.
Tevonda: And what exactly did your promotion, mean, what did you do?
Carlos D: I was promoted to Distribution Manager. Oh but wait! When I first got the job I was responsible for shipping merchandise to four stores, that number haw tripled. And even though my salary didnít triple, I was now responsible to distribute to twelve stores.
This case of Carlosí is becoming very common. Some companies are calling it "cutting the fat." A company figures that it could do just as well without the help of middle management. This could be shown with the recent layoffs from AT&T. They felt that in order to stay competitive, they could no longer afford a large number of middle managers. And although Carlos wasnít the last to be hired, his job was one of the first to be eliminated.
In the early 1980s, when layoffs were experienced mostly to factory blue-collar workers (factory, construction, etc.), white-collar workers were generally left unharmed. The general rule was that the older and more educated you were, the less likely you would have to worry about job security. Ten yers later these statistics have changed. Now the profile of the average displaced worker is someone who is between the ages of thirty and fifty, classified as a white-collar worker, earning between twenty and sixty thousand dollars annually and who has at least some college. And usually these workers have been with their employer for five years or more.
Companies realize that they can save money by replacing older, more experienced employees who earn fifty thousand dollars annually with some recent college graduate who will do the same job for half that salary. When I asked Carlos the reason for the layoff he said, "The company needed to economize, so they were trying to merge two divisions into one. The entire retail division was taken over by wholesale."
Tevonda: Were all of the employees under retail laid off?
Carlos D: Yeah, everyone but one person who was kind of shifted over...you know what? They told me that I could apply for a position within wholesale...
Tevonda: Well, thatís good. Did you?
Carlos D: They told me that I would be a ticketer making $7.50 an hour. Can you believe that! I took that as an insult. How could they even offer me that kind of money. I was making double that amount before.
Carlos then looked down at his drink and shook his head slightly. His eyes were heavily burdened with the task of finding a job and his disbelief over his recent layoff.
Statistics show that Carlos will most likely find another job, but maybe not one with the same pay as before. According to a poll done by the New York Times, twenty-five percent of the people polled found another full-time job, but at a lower pay. And twenty-four percent of the people found only part-time work. This is a hard reality to swallow. Most people who are laid off do not have large savings to live off of until things get better. Many people are living almost paycheck to paycheck and depend on a certain salary to get by. And when there is a drop in pay, sometimes itís hard to make ends meet. I asked Carlos, "On a scale of one to ten, how hard to you think it will be to find another job with the same salary or some other acceptable pay?"
Carlos D: On a scale of one to ten, I would say a nine. Because Iíve been in my field for nine years already and I know what Iím worth. But you have these kids fresh out of college, who will do the job for less because they need a job. I hope I wonít have to settle for less and take a large pay cut. But if things get rough, then Iíll have to take what I can get.
Tevonda: Do you feel threatened by other laid-off workers?
Carlos D: I wouldnít say threatened, but Iíll say apprehensive. You know, itís like a rat race. The thing is that looking for a job becomes a job. You go on interview after interview. Youíre inspected and scrutinized. But you gotta be the best and thatís a full-time job in itself.
Tevonda: So youíve been attending job interviews?
Carlos D: Yes, six since Iíve been terminated. And out of the six, five of them I would consider taking.
Tevonda: To turn this around a bit, Carlos, were you in any way worried about your job before February 29, 1996?
Carlos D: Well, I was worried a little but not too much. I was assured that if any downsizing was to happen, I would be kept on until everything went through. But as you know, that didnít happen.
Carlos was not alone in his feelings of job insecurity. When reading about these layoffs week after week, people begin to wonder just how secure their jobs really are. According to the New York Times, 46 percent of the polled felt insecure about their jobs or the jobs of someone in their household. This feeling of insecurity is causing people to cut down on spending and deny themselves luxuries they used to enjoy. People are also afraid of overspending because of the uncertainty of their jobs. I asked Carlos if his lack of employment affected his everyday life.
Carlos D: Well, itís kind of different. Things have changed, but not drastically. My personal attitudes have changed a lot. I donít take anything for granted anymore.
Tevonda: Are you worried about how you are going to make ends meet?
Carlos D: Yes, every day, every single day. It hurts because I know that I am young and able to work. There is no reason why I should be sitting home all day, when I could work. For now, the bills are still being paid. My fiancťe is still working and Iím getting my vacation pay that they owe me and severance pay.
Tevonda: Donít you think it was generous for them to give you severance pay?
Carlos D: Yeah, but think it was given to me because they felt bad for letting me go.
Tevonda: How do you think your fiancee is taking this?
Carlos D: Well, sheís taking it pretty well. Sheís my motivation. She encourages me not to give up. I think itís affecting her more than she lets on, though. Thatís just the kind of person she is. Sheíll always back me and help me when Iím down.
Nearly seven of ten people have been affected by a layoff in their lifetime. And over half of the polled stated that they have been laid off at least once in their lives, and twenty-five percent stated that they have been laid off twice. This society, where it was once thought that children would do better than their parents, is changing. It is no longer thought that the twenty- to thirty-year-olds will exceed the accomplishments of their parents. Right now people in this age are group going back to school, trying to gather all the right credentials to become employable. They know that to get the jobs their parents had, they need twice as much education just to get them an interview.
Tevonda: If you had to give advice to a fellow laid-off worker, what would it be?
Carlos D: Keep your spirits up. Things are bound to get better eventually. And I understand what youíre going through. Thatís what I would tell them.
Tevonda: Do you have anything else to add before weíre through?
Carlos D: Yeah, just one thing. Iíve learned that experience is the best teacher in life. You live, you learn, you grow, you go on.
Tevonda: Thank you, Carlos.