We love the absolute urgency of New Year’s Eve. The countdowns, the hankering for a kiss like nothing you’ve seen since your prom. We think of Harry Burns rushing to the side of Sally Albright — It’s not because I’m lonely! — and we think of Y2K, god, we think of Y2K, and how nothing happened. But that doesn’t diminish the thrill.
Whether you are celebrating on a beach in Cancún, with family you see just once a year, with your frattiest friends, or snoozing on your couch — gotta be well rested for your New Year’s resolutions!! — we hope you feel that spark tonight. No matter what your party scene, we’ve corralled a few of our favorites for you today. For the classy: open your champagne tonight not with a pop but with a saber. Or cop some dance moves from New Orleans’ enigmatic performer. (If you’re a bit more aggressive, try the fight-moves of Oakland’s rowdiest fête, Hoodslam.) Covet the fabulous life of Miami’s Gatsby, or get wild yourself, create a massive rave, and secede from the world, creating your own nation for the night a la the Kazantip Republic.
But be safe: don’t end up like the 1970s’ sex-filled tragic doorman Haoui Montaug. And stay far, far away from the nastiest party drug around these days — meow meow. Be well, OZY friends, and we’ll see you in the New Year, shiny and bright.
The author is a “particularly troublesome, even dangerous, anarchist,” according to a report by ABC’s Nightline.
Under unrelenting sun, a hundreds-strong, majority-Black procession flowed through New Orleans’ Seventh Ward. Horn players blew irresistible funk. Aunties rump-shook. Street toughs buckjumped. Champagne flutes tipped and blunt smoke wafted. But where, I wondered, had Spider-Man gone?
More happened that Sunday afternoon — May 10, 2015 — than a white outsider like me could hope to process. The procession steered up St. Bernard Avenue and toward a 25-foot-tall railroad bridge. And there, on the bridge’s edge, was Spider-Man, also known as Taray Roberts, a lanky, 23-year-old dude of color who sported a black T-shirt, tarmac-colored basketball shorts and permed hair with a blond tuft.
Taray strutted, crouched, hoisted hands and slow-fucked the whole world. The poured concrete he danced upon was three sneakers wide, and he had had a few drinks. His eyes were open wide and glazed, like it was him up there but not him.
It starts with my hands, with me snapping. And I pretend to beat the bongos on my legs.
Taray Roberts, aka Spider-Man
Taray is part of a tradition that manifests in one Black neighborhood of New Orleans or another most Sunday afternoons. It’s called second line and, sometimes, “the church after church.” Community associations, or social and pleasure clubs, have been orchestrating these roving celebrations since the 19th century. The first line is for club members, who dazzle with funky steps, handcrafted plumage and a carefully considered route. The second is everybody else. Second lines challenge the laws of gravity and American apartheid.
Taray second-lined for the first time when he was 8. He hooked his hand into his grandma’s back pocket — Now hang on, she said — and off they went. Taray lives in the Ninth Ward, line-cooks, caretakes for grandparents and studies nursing at community college. The day I treat him to lunch, he chooses Houston’s, declares himself a foodie and orders a lemon drop martini with a rack of ribs. A bullet is lodged just above Taray’s bladder. “I’m feeling it right now,” he says between sips. “A little sting, a little pain.”
Taray Roberts dancing in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, 2015.
Source Tim Doody for OZY
On May 12, 2013, two young men fired semi-automatic pistols into the Original Big 7 Social and Pleasure Club’s 17th Annual Mother’s Day Second Line. They aimed for and hit a rival gang member. They also hit 18 paraders, including Taray’s mom, Latonya (arm), and Taray (abdomen, hand). Taray’s brother, then 7 years old, was not hit — Latonya and Taray shielded him.
Taray lay in a spreading puddle of blood. “Don’t you close your eyes!” Latonya yelled. Friends begged cops for an ambulance and cops remained silent. Taray’s biological father eased his son into his yellow Camaro SS and sped to the emergency room. They were stopped en route by cops who tallied charges — fleeing a crime scene, running a red. Then the cops about-faced and offered an escort. At the hospital, a detective interrogated a barely-there Taray — Why’d he shoot you? What’s his name? — until Latonya shrieked his ass out the room. The miracle for mothers that day? Nineteen gunshot victims and nobody died.
At the procession this year — the 19th Annual Mother’s Day Second Line — Taray skipped, crouched and spun through a crowded street like he was dodging linebackers in slow, syncopated motion. He’s vigilant now, especially when crowds become large and less familiar. Still, he regularly enters what athletes call the zone and mystics call trance. “When the tuba and drums are on point,” he says, “I can’t hold it back. It starts with my hands, with me snapping. And I pretend to beat the bongos on my legs. Next thing you know, it’s in my legs.”
What that “it” is that courses through Taray can be debated. But let’s agree that when it’s happening, Taray gets down, as in physically closer to earth, as in energetically open to possibility and/or spirit. Let’s also agree that it’s an old-school phenomenon. In Aesthetic of the Cool, Robert Farris Thompson argues that the “strong leans,” “deep knee bends” and “circling” deployed by second line dancers go back to West Africa, to the Kongo people who, through said moves, unleashed erotic power, healed psychic imbalance and got the party started. And what, I asked, did Spider-Man think of that? He digs it but clarifies: “I don’t imitate. I originate.”
It’s a Saturday night at Elbo Room, one of the hottest bars just outside of Mumbai, and the usual suspects are present: Top 40 jams, a long line for the bathroom, and free shots for select ladies. But something else is also making an appearance, and some of the clubgoers I meet have the same message for me: Don’t touch meow meow.
Also known as MCAT, white magic, drone or mephedrone, meow meow is the latest street drug hitting Mumbai, and even those on MDMA, cocaine and a helluva lot of hash say this shit is — in their collective words — “bad fucking news.” It’s the older ones who’ve got the maturity to judge as such: Take 32-year-old Adi, whose last name we’ve withheld for obvious reasons and who’s an entrepreneur with generally positive feelings toward hash, acid and coke. But meow? “The worst fucking crash,” he says, his light eyes wide, Kingfisher beer in hand. “It’ll make you damn suicidal.”
Indeed, the unfortunately named drug — so christened for the CAT in MCAT — is this city’s biggest new plague, taking rapid hold among early-20-somethings and even those as young as 12 — “kids who don’t know what good drugs are even like,” Adi tells me. Some reports suggest there are between 120,000 and 150,000 users in the country and that the number is growing. Police have told local journalists that 80 percent of drug addicts in Mumbai are meow-meow-heads.
Meow meow wasn’t even on the list of government-banned drugs until February.
It’s ubiquitous, in part, because it’s the “cheapest drug available,” says Mumbai police spokesman and deputy commissioner of police Dhananjay Kulkarni: somewhere around $15 to $23 per gram, compared with around six times that for cocaine. It’s the scourge of poor teens living in mega-slums like Dharavi or Siddharth Nagar, says Kulkarni. (The police campaign has focused on those lower-class consumers rather than peddlers, Kulkarni says, resulting in arrests of addicts who commit crimes.) Meow meow is a club drug, generally snortable but also swallowable, comparable more to coke than ecstasy or MDMA but with a comedown to rival the latter’s. Its appeal: an ability to stay up all hours, increased sex drive and thrilling energy.
As for its marker: “Look for the zombies,” says Harsh, a 25-year-old at Elbo Room who’s swigging a whiskey neat tonight. No, he hasn’t done the drug himself, but plenty of his friends and their younger siblings have, he says. They’ve come down with hallucinations of death. Where Kulkarni describes them as “pale, thin, like sick people,” Harsh is more blunt: “They look, like, dead on their feet.”
Which is, sadly, how some end up after they follow the cat’s call. Mumbai psychiatrist and chair of forensic psychiatry at the Indian Psychiatric Society Yusuf Matcheswalla has seen and treated teens who lose weight, break down, drop out of college, steal, lie, cheat; they develop psychosis, lung problems and even die — all from this “very, very impure drug,” he says, in which makers “put any damn white powder.”
Meow meow wasn’t even on the list of government-banned drugs until February — one of the reasons for its prevalence, says Kulkarni. And then there are the sellers, who can make it in a home cooker and rake in the big money. Authorities arrested one such seller in March: Shashikala “Baby” Patankar, who’s in her 50s and accused of supplying mephedrone to a police officer. An alleged longtime seller of hash and so-called brown sugar who lived in the slum where she did much of her business, Patankar dominated the selling scene alongside a merry mess of addicts turned peddlers, according to press reports. (Patankar couldn’t be reached for comment, but her lawyer, NN Gawankar, tells OZY that his client is not guilty and that the seized mephedrone was “not even narcotics powder,” citing findings from a narcotics lab in Pune.) In the end, though, says Jayant Naiknavare, an officer with the city’s anti-narcotics cell, Patankar’s arrest makes little difference: For every 100 people like Baby Patankar, he says, 200 are ready to take her place.
Drugs are far from new in India, particularly in the urban centers. From opium (production of which is legal in the country) to heroin, the Mumbai underworld has incubated its share of narcotics. Mumbai is also no stranger to accusations of organized crime’s links with the police force, with corruption raging higher in Maharashtra’s departments than anywhere else in the country, according to reports in 2011 and 2013. Indeed, Patankar’s arrest was “an embarrassment,” says Naiknavare, because the cops found so many colleagues involved with her.
But the scene in the clubs — and the slums — is far from a romantic, languorous “Kubla Khan” opiate stupor or even the thrill of gangsters like Dawood Ibrahim, stories of which pepper Bollywood flicks and the Western-favorite novel Shantaram. Leaving Elbo Room, Madhav, a 26-year-old long-haired hippie sort, grabs my elbow. He tells me he’s a little too old for meow and that he tries to “stick to MD and coke. I mean, I’m on both — with just, like, a little bit of the meow in there,” he says. Madhav’s eyes are frightening. He stands too close. His youth is ugly.
Ingredients: one bottle of Champagne, icy trails running down its neck. One slim glass flute. One 12-inch steel sword with a tapered wooden handle. No, this isn’t some freaky Fatal Attraction redux. These are the three things you need to participate in sabrage, the fine art of opening bubbly … by saber.
Grasping the bottle in one hand, an experienced sabreur lops off the bottle’s neck with a quick flick of the saber; one satisfying swish provides bubbly and cool credentials. Yes, it sounds like a Jackass stunt, but this is a skill with historical precedence, dating back to the “1700s when transportation was a horse and the weapon of the day was a saber,” Frank Morgan King, CEO of Sonoma Champagne Sabres, tells OZY. In Napoleon’s era, soldiers would return from war and celebrate on horseback. With no corkscrew in their back pockets, using a sword to hack into their Champagne became the norm.
The French Revolution has passed, but the tradition of sabrage continues. In recent years its popularity has led to a growing number of classes and experiences worldwide, ranging from carving off corks at California wineries to honing saber skills on private islands off the coast of England. And the art form can bring out a competitive streak, with regular attempts to break records for most bottles sabered in a minute: The YouTube record is 55 bottles in 60 seconds; Guinness World Records says 47. No matter how you slice it, that’s some serious bottle beheading.
Caution: Always check your surroundings, as a sabered cork can fly 40 feet.
For us amateurs, “there are six steps to sabrage,” King says, explaining that a number of factors must align if you want A+ swordsmanship. The colder the bottle the better, as the tip will snap cleanly — a warm bottle can shatter. He advises beginners to hold the bottle at a 20-degree angle, and “follow the [cork] seam with the blade.” Caution: Always check your surroundings, as a sabered cork can fly 40 feet. Yikes. “You could definitely hurt yourself,” warns Sydney Munteanu, content director at Club W, a California-based wine service. You also need to be wary of losing a bottle to breakage, she adds. (Suggestion: Start off with some cheap stuff.)
So where do you get your hands on a saber? King has been selling them globally for three years. But you’ll need to have deep pockets: His blades cost anywhere from $176 to $27,000. For those who just want to know more, numerous societies are devoted to promoting sabrage, including the Knights of Wine Society and the Order of the Golden Sabre, established in 1986. And more and more people seem to have their interest piqued. Online searches for sabrage have increased a hundredfold over the last decade, and there’s 14,000 YouTube videos. Understandable — shearing off the top of a Champagne bottle with a saber is cool by any standard.
Fun fact: Sabrage has zero effect on the alcohol quality — unless you manage to spill it, of course.And if that happens, we suggest you take Napoleon’s message to heart. “In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it.” And some extra Champagne never hurt anyone, right?
But once it bites, it bites hard, and it endures, at least in the minds of those who have had their perceptions permanently altered by the touch of its unlikeliest standard bearers: a doorman. Specifically, one Mr. Haoui Montaug.
You see, there was a time in the not-so-distant late 1970s when cheap sex existed without the fear of AIDS, when drugs flowed freely without the reality of eventual stints in rehab, when every idle moment was not Internetted into dust and you had enough privacy to get into all of the trouble embodied by the aforementioned. And more often than not, the era’s trademark trouble places were presided over by a doorman named Haoui Montaug — though to call him a doorman just invites the worst kind of misunderstanding.
Haoui was taking the framing of the cultural life of this city, as lived through its best clubs, seriously.
Diane von Furstenberg with her then-boyfriend, media mogul Barry Diller, at Studio 54 during a New Year’s Eve party in the late ’70s.
Source Robin Platzer/Time Life/Getty
Which is to say he was not the variety of doorman who bows and appends “sir” or “madam” to inquiries about your day, but the other kind. The kind that stands in front of a velvet rope before a long line of dreamers trying to make it into Hurrah, Danceteria, the Palladium and Studio 54, deciding who gets in and who goes home disappointed. These clubs — and he was a fixture of them all in a movable feast of nights that never ended — were totally New York in tone and tenor, and mixed together races, classes, genders, sexual preferences, substances and musical genres. The parties were all-consuming, and they incubated all kinds of culture craziness from early Madonna, Basquiat and Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls (arguably the godfathers of punk), to the more established set like fashionista Halston, Warhol and the Jaggers (both Bianca and Mick, married at the time).
And controlling access to all of this was a 25-year-old Brooklyn kid whose job was not just to check IDs, but also to guarantee that the party that seemed like it was never going to stop actually never stopped. With his dead-eyed aplomb, he was often described with words like implacable (at his best: charging Mick Jagger the full admission fee). With the possible exception of fellow gatekeeper Marc Benecke, no one held more sway over the kind of weekend, week and life you were going to have back then than Montaug.
A fact sometimes forcefully driven home when the martial artist Montaug took to fisticuffs to shake off unruly would-be patrons. The point remained crystal clear: Haoui was taking the framing of the cultural life of this city, as lived through its best clubs, seriously — with a capital S. It wasn’t just about tending a playground for the rich and well-heeled: Studio 54 was about gathering wanderers from meandering crossroads; it was a place where arts, fashion, music and culture came together with and partially because of the high life. And Montaug’s sense of this was strong.
So strong that he had a cabaret revue show called No Entiendes that featured early bows from Madonna and the Beastie Boys, and toured the U.S., Europe and Asia. He ran a karaoke show (well before karaoke was just a good night out for office workers) with other club great DJ Anita Sarko, and had deals and doings with a whole raft of downtown habitués like actress Ann Magnuson, musician Klaus Nomi and artist Keith Haring. He even appeared in Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81, a very real roundup of all the great late ’70s/early ’80s post-punk pre-Reagan artists who could actually afford to live in New York back then. That is, before rents and AIDS started to drive people off or snatch them away.
Montaug, loved and hated, inspired a wide variety of emotion. So when he said he was having a suicide party as his response to being diagnosed with AIDS, the 20 folks who showed up on June 7, 1991 (reported to include Madonna by phone from Los Angeles), had no idea what to expect.
But what they got was a great party, during which Montaug took five Seconals and went to sleep. And, the ’80s having ended, the party continued in celebration of both the past decade and his life and death — prematurely on the latter point, it turned out, as he awoke from a labored slumber, bitched everyone out for messing up his apartment, took 20 more Seconals and then died.
And now? Outside of bit parts in a few movies — Krush Groove, Cookie — some of his writing in Details, Paper and a few other mags, and an award named after him at the SXSW-esque New Music Seminar, where he had been panel director, Montaug is much more a vibe than anything else at this point.
Enduring cool, great crazy tastes and archetypal edge, all from the business side of the velvet rope.
Happy Holidays! While OZY’s on vacation, we’ve put together some of our favorite reads of the year.
As we write, it’s a few days before Christmas. The office is all but empty. It’s just us, the co-founder and our cleaning lady, all working in our different corners. Our real company is the blinking cursor. How to frame a year in love? As a bachelor of close to a decade, we could easily go the cynical route. As someone allergic to saccharine, we are genetically incapable of throwing down Pollyanna style.
Thing is, whether you’re pro or con, love is there, like chlorine in the water. The twist and pull and tug of it defines most of our lives. Some of us figure out how to pull partners and families out of barren hats. Some find love early and, at the frail and gray end of it all, look with satisfaction at a landscape of successful offspring spreading the family talents into infinity. And some of us, deprived of or poisoned by love, get twisted into ugly shapes — we withdraw and petrify.
Who’s to say who’s the winner? Not us. What we can do, however, is present a handful of takes on the infamous L-U-V. Our rundown on the five types of men who try to marry you in India leaves us looking for a sixth or seventh type whom our lady friends in India might actually find appealing. Taylor Mayol wants to put an end to “same-siders” — couples who sit next to each other at restaurant tables, à la Lady and the Tramp. (We’re single, and we do that, but it’s because too many punk shows compromised our hearing. Sorry, Taylor.) Libby Coleman clues us in to the little-known phenomenon of fruit fly harassment. Spoiler alert: It’s not easy being a superfly fruit fly. Another surprise: Beloved children’s author Shel Silverstein — our mom and dad gave us all his books, inscribed “Love, Mommy and Daddy” — was for a time Hugh Hefner’s sidekick. The ladies loved him. He loved the ladies back. Playboy cartoonist Skip Williamson once said that Silverstein “knew his way around a skirt.” (Why, Mommy and Daddy, why?)
Looking out for the kids in a full-on wholesome — and righteous — way is Stanford law grad David Domenici, who’s working to overhaul the world of juvenile detention. Let’s not forget the love of God. In partnership with TED, we look at Chelsea Shields, a Mormon feminist working to balance respect for religious doctrine with the arguably higher mandate of equal rights for all. And if you’re deputy editor Eugene S. Robinson, there’s the hands-down greatest love of all. That would be the love of daughter. In one of our favorite pieces of the year, Robinson explains why he insisted all three of his daughters learn a martial art. “To me, it seemed as irresponsible not to have my daughters know how to defend themselves as it would have been not to teach them how to read,” he says.
In these and other stories, we scratch at the surface of a persistent human itch.
It sounds like a stand-up routine, right? Sexual harassment is such a problem, even female insects have to beat the men off like flies! Cue canned laughter. Except, it’s not a joke. A study from the University of Queensland shows that it’s not only lady Homo sapiens who suffer from sexual attention of the excessive, uninvited variety:
Attractive female fruit flies suffer from sexual harassment.
Being hot isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, even if you’re a bug. The study, conducted by Australian and Canadian researchers and using 12 fruit fly populations, with 55 females and 55 males, found that in competitive settings — think high school dance —the really cute females got all the boys’ attention. Unfortunately, the males overdid their courtship. Because of the intensity of male ardor, female fruit flies ended up physically hurt, zapped of energy or unable to reproduce. This led the lab to conclude, rather sensibly, that attractiveness worked against natural selection.
First of all, what about a fruit fly female brings qualifies as “really cute”? It’s a mix of pheromones and fertility signals, like a swollen stomach. And why do we care? The lab was testing if natural and sexual selection work together or in opposition, says Steve Chenoweth, lead researcher. It’s like when Charles Darwin wondered why male peacocks had bright tail feathers. Could the same tail feathers that helped them attract females — evolutionary advantage — also attract predators, aka evolutionary buzzkill?
This research can also be used to help science as a whole understand how species adapt to their environments, Chenoweth says. Think of it as the preliminary step to knowing on a DNA level what genes are involved in these fruit fly interactions, which in the future can be used to optimize the chance of survival. Joanne Yew, an assistant professor at the Pacific Biosciences Research Center, says the study’s ideas are testable with other animals too, because of what she calls Chenoweth’s “well-designed” experimental method. The only downside of branching out is obvious: Getting results will take longer with animals with longer life spans.
Of course, these findings are part of an ongoing story. For one thing, Chenoweth thinks the results would be stronger with a sample size 10 times larger than what his team used. And over longer periods of time, Chenoweth says, they might see a different, more nuanced relationship between natural and sexual selection. Going forward, researchers are keen to answer other questions, like what specific biological processes and genes are at play. If the researchers can find out, Chenoweth says, they’ll know what genes “create the biggest bang for their buck.”
“Mixed martial arts? You mean using oils or acrylics on Civil War re-creation paintings?” Mingling with other parents at after-school events led me quickly to the conclusion that while we’re on the same planet, we’re worlds apart. Mixed martial arts, or MMA, is a hot, not-nearly-new-at-all, gladiatorial engagement that’s all about punching people in the face until they stop trying to punch you in the face. Artful, but nothing to do with painting.
And all three of my daughters were doing it. Not just doing it, but training with former Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Cung Le, former TPF middleweight champion Leopoldo Serao and a host of other badasses that you wouldn’t typically find at many after-school events. I said as much.
“Oh.” The look the venture-capital-attorney mom shot me was priceless, and it said all kinds of things, most of them ending with “lunatic,” I imagined.
Of course, if I’d said that my daughters took ballet, not an eye would have blinked — despite the fact that ballet requires eight to 10 years to get good at, involves 10 to 15 classes a week and comes along with grim future prospects, even for those who make it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that working dancers can expect a median hourly wage of $14.16, an amount that’ll really hurt when you get mugged for it.
Which is what it comes down to: Is knowing how to defend yourself a fool’s errand, or a wise use of a civilized person’s time? In my case, with my daughters — even before they were daughters — there was an understanding. They could do anything they wanted with their lives, but one thing on the docket was nonnegotiable: They had to know how to defend themselves. And part of knowing how to defend yourself is knowing how to fight.
It didn’t matter to me what martial art they took. Though I favored muay thai and Brazilian jiujitsu, they could take tai chi for all I cared. They just had to have something to draw on when faced with what I felt was an inevitability — a casus belli. When a call to arms came calling, they had to be able to respond with something other than pleas to our gentler natures, which are sometimes in short supply. In any case, it’s better to have weapons and not need them than to need them and not have them. I understand that this is a major worldview divide. I know because my mother told me so.
Grace Robinson, one of the author’s daughters, snuffing her male competition.
Source Butch Garcia
“Only angry people fight,” she once told me. “Use your words.” This I soundly dismissed the first time I tried it, by calling someone a dumbass. It may have been the wrong word, but still. Years later, on NPR, Farai Chideya asked me, “You know, you yourself are a father, and you know, they might say it’s not good for kids to hear that someone likes to fight. It’s not good, period, for someone to want to fight. How do you respond to the idea that this is immoral or at least lacks common sense?”
My response ended with the kicker: “I don’t see that this is something that you can avoid.” Which is why I want my daughters, your daughters, your sons, even, to get beyond the fear of chaos and physical violence, and into the kind of control that learning about it gives you. For my girls, it was never about some movie-fueled, Charlie’s Angels-esque itch to be naughtily cute. It was a basis for laying down the law, philosophically and physically, and not being afraid to do so. To me, it seemed as irresponsible to not have my daughters know how to defend themselves as it would have been to not teach them how to read.
“I was walking across the soccer field,” Ruby, my second daughter was deep into a story about her first day away from the rarefied air of private school at a new summer camp. She was 10. “Reading. And this bigger boy ran up to me to kick me.” He was 13.
“I caught the kick, swept his other leg out and dropped a ‘knee-on-belly.’” She smiled, lost in the technical accomplishment of getting this linked series of moves right, and she mimicked kneeling on his stomach as he squirmed under her weight, in full view of her now raised fist.
What happened then? “He left me alone.”
Sugar and spice and a dollop of wallop? We’re sold. Are you?
It’s a cold March morning in the nation’s capital. My fingers are stiff, and in the end, useless as I fumble to open the door to David Domenici’s battered 1992 Honda Civic. But with a sturdy shove and then a yank, the wiry 50-year-old reassures me that it’s not me. We’re headed less than a mile away, so Domenici can show me where he used to work.
“It was vile,” he says, nodding to the remnants of a juvenile detention center. Inside, he takes me to a stale, moldering complex where he used to teach the lockup’s student body, kids as young as 13 and as old as 21. In 2009, after allegations of abuse and decrepit conditions, a judge closed the facility. But in a new detention hall just down the road, named New Beginnings, Domenici has managed to build a model school for young inmates. On the day I visit, the classrooms are decorated with colorful murals, encouraging slogans and pictures of grinning recent grads. Teachers and security officers greet the tattooed scholars with warm handshakes and hugs. The ambience is downright optimistic. “You never would have seen anything close to this before,” Domenici says.
The question that remains, will we see others like it?
Each year, the U.S. incarcerates more than 200,000 youthful offenders, housed in more than 700 juvenile detention centers across the country. It’s not a pretty picture. “Students come out of the juvenile justice system in worse shape than when they entered,” writes Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit think tank in Atlanta. By most accounts, the majority of these facilities have warped into warehouses of neglect, churning out kids without giving them much, if any, of an education. Less than 15 percent of this population will graduate high school, according to a 2014 report that Suitt’s organization authored; about 1 in 100 will go to college.
That’s where Domenici comes in, the nation’s de facto headmaster of the school of hard knocks. After setting up the charter school in D.C. and spending 15 years in the trenches, the one-man crusader is now trying to bring structure to the entire chaotic juvenile justice education system. But the more you get to know Domenici, the more you wonder why he cares so much. A Stanford law grad, the son of a six-term Republican senator and husband to Cheryl Mills, the Clinton family’s trusted lawyer, the reticent do-gooder could certainly be anywhere but a dingy detention center. It’s a question he’s used to getting. “People always ask,” says Domenici, “‘Why the hell do you do this?’”
The landscape of correctional education is motley at best. Some states put correctional schools under the purview of local school districts, while others leave it to detention centers to coordinate curricula. “They gave us work you’d give a 7-year-old,” recalls Danzell, a 17-year-old detainee at New Beginnings, referring to the last facility where he was housed. And when he went home, his high school wouldn’t accept the credits anyway. Dorian, 18, spent much of the past two years in a residential program in another state, where, he says, they didn’t even have teachers — everything was online. Across the country, the ACLU won a lawsuit in 2010 against Los Angeles officials for failing to provide detainees in the nation’s largest juvenile probation facility with a semblance of adequate education.
The student incarcerees at Domenici’s Maya Angelou Academy inside New Beginnings have it different. When they arrive, they learn the history of the school — named, significantly, for the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — while a counselor learns about their backgrounds. The counselor shows each student his transcript, and together they create a tailored blueprint for the student’s education. Seventeen-year-old Chaz, for instance, hasn’t attended school since 2011, so in his case, it makes more sense to help him get his GED and acquire job-ready skills. The academy’s curriculum blends Common Core instruction, online learning and skills-based classes, like barbering or running cable. There are public speaking seminars and a debate team, and students get opportunities to express themselves through outlets like poetry.
When I arrive to see Domenici’s handiwork, several students, some security guards and an art teacher are coloring a large butterfly cutout and discussing a video they just watched about the importance of strong father figures. “When we first came in, they thought we were just a bunch of humanitarian do-gooders with no idea what we were doing,” says Tiffany Price, a Maya Angelou teacher. According to school records, the first year the school opened inside New Beginnings, 2009, 23 percent of kids were still in school or working 120 days after release. Three years later, that had risen to 50 percent, where it continues to hover.
While these days Domenici opts for sneakers and pleated slacks sans belt, his white-shoe background gives him access to rarified D.C. circles.
What does all this cost? In the case of Maya Angelou, Domenici’s overhaul led to a 10 percent slash in the budget. He attributes the difference mostly to bloated administrative and staffing costs. But overall, he says, it costs about twice as much to adequately educate incarcerated students compared with those in regular public schools. Reformers argue that in the long run, the investment saves tax dollars. The global think tank RAND Corporation estimates that for every dollar put toward correctional education programs, we save $5 over the following three years by reducing recidivism. The National Academy of Sciences estimates above-average juvenile detention education could save communities between $2 million and $3 million per student over the next decade.
Still, some would say that investing in correctional education is tantamount to throwing good money after bad. Taxpayer dollars should focus on keeping kids out of detention in the first place, says David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Though LaBahn says Domenici’s ideas are worthy, he argues that investing in public school is a better bet. “We want the juvenile system to work,” he says. “The question is, how far do you go to get that system to work?”
Domenici has been grappling with his own questions of social justice since childhood. While these days he opts for sneakers and pleated slacks sans belt, Domenici’s white-shoe background gives him access to rarified D.C. circles — and money. It also allowed him that why-can’t-I-do-this attitude that often comes with a life of privilege. “I was a white guy with a Stanford law degree and a dad who was a senator; I was going to be able to raise money,” he says. It doesn’t hurt that he’s married to Cheryl Mills, who became a familiar face on TV when she defended Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial, and served as Hillary’s right hand at the State Department.
That doesn’t sit well with some in the communities that Domenici works with. Every person in a jumpsuit at New Beginnings, at least when I visit, has a brown face, while Domenici and many of the other faculty are white. That creates an unsettling power dynamic, says LaMarr Shields, who was brought into Maya Angelou Academy to train staff on culturally responsive teaching. “A lot of these individuals from different backgrounds don’t fully understand the roles poverty and racism play” in delinquency, Shields says. Of the more than 50,000 kids who are locked away at any given time, 40 percent have special needs, most are poor and dark-skinned, and many come from broken homes and rough neighborhoods.
The landscape of correctional education is motley at best.
That’s a far cry from Domenici’s own upbringing. Growing up one of eight children in the suburbs of New Mexico, and then D.C., Domenici earned near-perfect grades and played lots of sports (the father of two still has some street cred on the b-ball court). It was books by writers like Taylor Branch and James Baldwin that fed his growing interest in class equality. But it wasn’t until after college that he first started working with inner-city kids, through a mentorship program at his Wall Street investment banking job. “[The kids] did it because they got free cookies, and we did it because it made us feel like decent human beings,” says Domenici. Years later, while working as a corporate lawyer, Domenici took it to another level when he decided to cash out his 401(k) to buy a pizza parlor so he could employ previously incarcerated teenagers — with the stipulation they agree to tutoring. The pizza was crap, but the experience solidified Domenici’s new career path.
After realizing that many of his employees weren’t even in school, Domenici stepped off the corporate ladder completely in 1997, and partnered with fellow lawyer James Forman to start a charter school for court-involved kids. They had $50,000 and a cramped, crappy town house. Five months later, Maya Angelou opened its doors to 20 students. Today, it serves around 450 on three campuses.
Now, Domenici is trying to scale up. A few years ago, he established the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, which provides state agencies and private institutions a kind of tool kit — teacher trainings, curricula and logistical support — for educating juvenile detainees. To date, he and his handful of staff have helped redesign more than 40 correctional schools. This summer, he hosted the second annual tech workshop, which attracted teachers from 19 facilities. And he recently helped the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs take control from local school districts and open charter schools in its facilities.
Utah’s state juvenile system is one of Domenici’s evangelists. It offers detainees at least one post-high school course, such as construction, and helps kids transitioning out obtain vocational permits for things like handling food or operating forklifts. Last year, it created an art exhibit in which inmates painted donated sneakers to illustrate the idea of walking in an incarcerated youth’s shoes. “We would never have done something like that,” says Travis Cook, a specialist with the state’s Office of Education.
All that is great, but Domenici says that sweeping change won’t happen until the federal government holds states accountable by creating and enforcing certain baseline requirements. That, he concedes, is an uphill battle since incarcerated youth aren’t exactly a powerful constituency. Then again, Domenici says he has never questioned the cost or value of helping these young people. He also says he could afford a new car if he wanted one, he just doesn’t care that much. As for why he does it all? “I don’t have a good answer.”
1) A horoscope and birth chart, with which to judge the auspiciousness of your potential mate’s fate against your own
2) A lot of free Saturdays, to vet potential suitors
3) For that matter, a lot of free relatives, to judge potential suitors
4) A budget: You’ll need to place ads in local newspapers and matrimonial sections, buy online dating profiles, and, of course, be ready to offer up a dowry to a husband who wants one
5) And don’t forget your virginity!
This is the recipe as prescribed by 27-year-old Vartika Verma, a highly educated, obscenely-six-figure-salary-successful marketing professional in New Delhi, who is aggressively on the prowl. Age 30 looms, and she’s not yet spoken for. So, she’s gone husband hunting. And what does she have to show for it? No wedding day, yet, but a healthy dossier of potential mates. Almost 50 of them, to be precise. She’s tapping into every resource available to her. Fortnightly ads in the matrimonial section of Sunday newspapers? Check. Online profile on matrimonial site? Check. Spreading the word among her trusty network of well-meaning aunts and uncles that the family is “officially looking”? CHECK!
Vartika is just one of some 40 million Indians using matrimonial websites — call them fast-track, no-bullshit versions of OkCupid or even Match.com. One of the most popular is aptly named Shaadi.com, which means marriage.com. But despite the boom in potential mates online, the odds don’t look good. In 2013, according to an Economic Times report, there were 35 million to 40 million registered profiles on matrimonial websites. And an additional 2.2 million profiles were being uploaded every month. Of these, only 10 percent of people were successful in finding spouses online — pretty depressing odds.
OK. At least on paper (and photographs). Often, in the course of due diligence, family members on either side procure birth charts detailing the date, time and location of birth of the other party to ascertain the likelihood of future marital bliss. To be fair, this is still, for the most part, how things are done: According to a survey by trulymadly.com, about 69 percent of marriages in India are arranged, with only 31 percent love marriages. “That’s just how it is,” Vartika says.
And at least it turns up some good stories. Meet the types of men, in question, straight from Vartika’s mouth.
The “Cultured Boy”
We were told by a family friend that he was a “cultured boy” from a very good family in Delhi. Usually, I prefer meeting the man in question alone, but his family insisted on meeting my family. I spent hours being plucked, scrubbed, waxed, and polished like a New Zealand apple. I forced myself into a bright salwar kameez to please his parents. After half an hour of polite conversation, we were shown to a separate table for an awkward 10-minute meeting to “understand each other.”
I don’t remember the conversation, but I do remember constantly staring at his crotch, wondering how the, ahem, “family jewels,” if you know what I mean (wink wink) were going to survive the death grip of his trousers. I later found out that the restaurant we had gone to offered a special package for such arranged marriage meetings — they’re called the ICUC package! ICUC = I-see-you-see. Get it?
One of my aunts thought that handing out my number like candy to potential grooms would speed up the process. One was particularly creepy. We’d had one conversation on WhatsApp, after which I left my phone on the table to rush out for a meeting. Two hours later, I came back to a phone with 37 messages, a Facebook friend request, a Twitter follow and a testimonial request on LinkedIn.
The Number Cruncher
Most Indian men can’t handle the idea of a wife who outearns them. This potential suitor was from New York. In our very first conversation, he wanted to discuss my salary. When he realized that I made more than he did, he quipped, “Wow. You make so much money, you must eat rupees for breakfast!” and laughed uproariously. If it was a joke, it wasn’t very funny.
The Virgin Worshippers
I wish I was making this up, but I’m not. Legions of men seem perfectly normal and nice until they ask the question that banishes them into the never-never land of modern match-making: “Are you a virgin, madam?”
They don’t want to check if I’m gay, asexual or if I have an STD, but they want to know whether I’ve had sex before. Some priorities! Why can’t there be a normal guy who asks for an AIDS test instead of such a moronic question?
The Gold Diggers
The old-fashioned word “dowry” is hard to come by, these days, but, oh yes, there are those who will drop broad hints about how according to custom, the girl’s family gives gold coins to this sister and gold chains to that aunt and whatnot. They, of course, are shown the door instantly.
Correction: due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Verma as a marketing professor. She is a marketing professional.