Slaves of Happiness Island: Molly Crabapple on Abu Dhabi and the Dark Side of High Art
"My message to the head of the Louvre would be to come and see how we are living here,” said Tariq,* a carpenter’s helper working on construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a $653 million Middle Eastern outpost of the iconic Parisian museum. Set to be completed in 2015, its collection will include a Torah from 19th-century Yemen, Picassos, and Magrittes.
“See our living conditions and think about the promises they made,” Tariq told me through a translator.
Last year, in his mid 30s, Tariq left his job at a Pakistani textile mill with dreams of being a crane operator in the Gulf. He showed me his certificate of crane proficiency, pulling the worn piece of paper out of the pocket of his beige salwar kameez. Recruiters promised him a salary of $326 a month—for a $1,776 recruitment fee to be paid in advance. With a cousin guiding him through the process, Tariq flew to Abu Dhabi to work for the Regal Construction company, one of roughly 900 construction outfits that employ foreign workers in the emirate.
But when Tariq arrived, Regal didn’t need him. For 24 days, he waited without pay, living in a squalid workers’ camp. When work finally materialized, he learned he would make only $176 a month. His boss confiscated his passport so that he couldn’t change jobs or leave the country. He sends half his salary back to his family. After 11 months in the Gulf, he still has not paid back the loan he took out to get there.
“How can I stay happy with a salary of $176?” Tariq asked, with an uncomfortable smile.
The Crack Smoking Crime Reporter Who Covered America’s Crack Epidemic
25 years ago, crack use was exploding across America. Cheap and readily accessible, the drug’s place in the national folklore was assured when President George H. W. Bush brandished a bag of crack rocks in an address from the Oval Office in 1989, opining: “It’s as innocent-looking as candy, but it’s turning our cities into battlezones, and it’s murdering our children.”
About four months later, Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry was busted by the feds. They caught him (on tape) smoking crack in a hotel room—where he famously muttered “Bitch set me up!” in reference to the former girlfriend who cooperated with the FBI to bring him down. That same night, Ruben Castaneda, a recently-hired crime reporter for the Washington Post who was lucky enough to be on the scene at the Vista Hotel, got high on crack in a room paid for by the newspaper. He was an addict, and with his blood racing from having seen the most popular politician in the city go down—and no one at the hotel giving up any dirt on the bust he could use for a story—the temptation was too great to resist.
Before his Post editors helped him get clean and kick the habit, Castaneda led a complicated existence—reporting stories on one hand and surreptitiously scoring crack on the other. His new book about those years, S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in DC, recalls David Simon’s beloved HBO show The Wire with its vivid, textured portrait of urban life and territorial gang warfare. The key difference, as Castaneda likes to point out, is that it’s all true (even if Simon’s own time as a crime reporter gave his show plenty of realism).
I called Castaneda up to ask him about experiencing the crack epidemic first hand, and how he pulled off such an incredible double life.
VICE: You were a reporter in your hometown of LA at the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner before being hired by the Post. Do you remember when you first heard about crack cocaine?
Ruben Castaneda: It’s hard to pinpoint, but I probably read an article in the LA Times or the New York Times about the impact crack was having in DC and in other cities around 1987 or 1988. Basically, that it was this incredibly powerful, addictive drug that was being sold in some of the tougher neighborhoods in the cities.
Tell me about your first experience with crack and what you think brought you to the drug.
I was on a reporting assignment on the western edge of downtown LA in a pretty tough neighborhood. This very, very attractive young woman caught my eye. She gestured for me to come over, so I put the reporting aside for a moment and went over to flirt with her. Now, I was already, at this time, drinking heavily. In fact, I had already gotten pretty toasted that afternoon at Corky’s—a dive bar—so I was pretty impaired in judgment. So when she offered me, very quickly into our conversation, a hit of crack, I was 27—old enough to know better but young enough to feel invincible. I was intrigued by the idea of experiencing something that I had read so much about. I’d read that crack cocaine produced this incredible high. In that moment, I dismissed any thoughts that this would throw me into addiction.
"Strawberry" was a term I hadn’t heard outside of rap lyrics before reading the book. Can you explain it to our readers?
A strawberry is a woman who trades sex for drugs. Crack usually, though I suppose it could be other drugs. I was introduced to crack by a young woman who turned out to be a strawberry—Raven—in Los Angeles. Getting a strawberry to make the buy for me very quickly became part of my addiction or compulsion. And it added to the excitement. At least initially, the sex was otherwordly. But there was another component to it in that by handing money to the strawberry—Raven in LA, Champagne or Carrie in DC—and letting them make the buy, I was insulating myself from any police activity. It was a way of protecting myself.
But by the last month or so, I didn’t even care about that. All I wanted was to get drugs—I made the buys directly. Didn’t care about strawberries, just needed more crack.
Sex was wrapped up in your crack use from the start, though. Did you have qualms about exploitation of these women working the street?
At the time that I was caught up in it, I did not reflect on that very much. The women who I was picking up for crack and sex seemed to be very much in control of their own destinies. We didn’t talk about our respective lives—these were transactional encounters. Now, later on, I did start to reflect on the fact that I was playing a role in their own addictions. I think it was June of 1991 when there was a story on the front-page of the Post about a group of women who had worked the streets. I saw a picture of a woman I had picked up to make crack buys for me. Up until that moment, I think I had mentally compartmentalized what I was doing as relatively benign.
Saving South Sudan
We devoted an entire issue of the magazine to Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia’s sprawling 35,000-plus word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. It’s a companion piece of sorts; watch the documentary and read the issue or vice versa. But you won’t get a full scope of the situation without doing both.
Survey Says: Journalists Are Old White Cowards
Today’s typical journalist is an unhappily middle-aged white male who complains he’s losing his freedom while declining to use that freedom to threaten those taking it away. That, at least, is the takeaway from a survey of reporters that found they are older, whiter, and better educated than they were a decade ago—and more timid than ever before.
The survey, “The American Journalist in the Digital Age,” was carried out by researchers at Indiana University and is based on interviews with over 1,000 US journalists working for radio and TV stations, newspapers, magazines, wire services, and websites. According to the survey, fewer reporters than ever say they have “almost complete freedom” in selecting stories—a third said that in 2013, compared to 60 percent in 1982—and fewer members of the fourth estate are willing to get their hands dirty in the service of speaking truth to power.
I Was Kidnapped by a Colombian Guerilla Army
Journalists go deep. Sometimes they go so deep into a story they lose track of where the story ends and their private life begins. Correspondent Confidential is a series of illustrated documentary shorts narrated by award-winning journalists. Newspaper reporters, documentary filmmakers, radio producers, and journalists tell personal stories about the harrowing—and hilarious—experiences they’ve had on the job while reporting on some of the world’s most high-profile issues and events.
Reporter T. Christian Miller was based in Colombia during the height of the US government’s war on drugs. As the US began to pour money into fighting the cocaine trade in Colombia, it inevitably spilled over into fighting the rebel groups that controlled—and “taxed”—the areas where coca plants were grown. When Miller went into the jungle to report on a government helicopter that was shot down during a mission to spray coca plants, he and his assistant were kidnapped by the FARC, a left-wing guerrilla army.
Trying to Report on the Sandy Hook Shooting When No One Has Anything to Say
What do you say about a dead six-year-old?
I went to Newtown, Connecticut on Monday with that question foremost in my mind. Almost every resident I spoke to there reported some kind of connection with the massacre. Caitlyn Hydeck, who sat next to me in a restaurant, said Olivia Engel and Charlotte Bacon, both six, had been students in the local theater program where she works as a dance instructor. “They were just happy little girls,” Hydeck recalled, at a loss to offer any further description. And really, what else could she say? I felt bad for even asking. Olivia was so tiny, andadorable.
When I arrived, TV crews had packed the town center, recording segments with the Honan Funeral Home in the background. One cameraperson wept. Inside, a viewing for Jack Pinto, also six, was underway. Men surrounded his small casket, wailing in grief; as I approached, I realized it was open. I hadn’t been ready for the sight of Jack’s lifeless face, which is now seared in my mind, presumably for life. On the radio that morning, I’d heard he liked swimming and the New York Giants—a woefully inadequate obituary, it would seem. But what more is there to say?
When Barack Obama read aloud the victims’ names on Sunday night at Newtown High School, his utterance of “Olivia” unexpectedly did me in. I worked as a camp counselor for a summer, and there were so many little girls named Olivia. If one had been killed, I wouldn’t have known what to say either, other than that they were happy little girls. As Obama read the names, I was struck by how distinctly American they sounded. This somehow compounded the sorrow: Catherine Hubbard, James Mattioli, Madeline Hsu, Noah Pozner, Ana Marquez-Greene…
At the restaurant, I asked Caitlyn if she had considered the fact that her hometown will henceforth be associated with mass murder of children, in the same way that Littleton, Colorado, is associated with Columbine. She said she’d thought about it some, but didn’t really know what to say. “We’re definitely going to be known for this forever,” she told me, trailing off.