“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” –Henry David Thoreau
On July 3rd I embarked on a research project with the objective of exploring America’s underclass and subcultures. I began by spending five days immersed in the 21st century American hippy culture at the Rainbow Gathering in the wilderness of Colorado, a place reminiscent of 1969 Woodstock, where conscientious objectors to the 9 to 5 work world of corporate America preached philosophies of free love, communal living, and the unfettered pursuit of happiness. We were deep in the forest, miles away from any manifestation of modern America – or as the Rainbow Gatherers called it, Babel.
I traveled day and night through the camp learning about the various philosophies of its members, from mystical Judaism to Hare Krishna to transcendental pantheism. I was interested in the question of what brings people to adopt one lifestyle over another. How could the individuals at this gathering enjoy such bliss following a life that would make others shudder? That is a life of transience and bare existence, where happiness is drawn from goods less material and more metaphysical. I interviewed a man who had gone through it all, having been an existentialist hippy in the 60s and 70s, a Buddhist in the 80s, and finally a born again Christian in the 90s. The rootlessness, the uncertainty, the longing for something sacred: his were not uncommon afflictions.
Next I hitchhiked to Denver and spent July 10 to the 15th living homeless under bridges, in rescue shelters, and along skid row, to feel the pain of America’s impoverished and observe our country from the bottom of the barrel. Echoing in my mind were the words I had written in an essay defining the journalism of empathy: “You cannot successfully immerse yourself with human beings whose abject status belittles you, without completely abolishing your sense of self. You must fall to the level of your subject, hit the floor flat on your face, be stripped of your comfort, bent to the will of others, and robbed of your former propriety. So after enduring that harsh existence for some time, the freshness of spirit carried from home will perish, at which point, being exhausted and severely lonely, morale fails, mental withdrawal takes hold, and depression ensues. Then finally, in this coat of despair, you shall pierce the saran wrap of reality and taste the raw meat beneath. And instead of receiving your subjects like the bland information of a textbook, you shall intimately appreciate their underlying and unique significance.”
Coming from the Rainbow Gathering, bearded, hungry, and tired, with dirty clothes, face, and teeth, I was down and out on streets just like my subjects. But there was a difference between us that I could not breach no matter how hard I tried. That was I had a place to go back to. I had my mother’s mansion and my father’s condo on the beach... while they had nothing.
Along with many others, I checked into the Denver Rescue Mission to survive. Before feeding us donated food, the workers had a minister preach to us about Jesus. Then they forced us to take showers, and at 9:00 pm, shut off the lights. At 5:00 am they threw everyone back on the streets, expecting the homeless to fend for themselves and make some money through day labor. Most got drugs and alcohol instead. In this context I once again began the process of exploring the crowd for individuals whose life story would epitomize the struggle of the whole. I befriended a prostitute whose drug addictions shackled her to the streets and stole her hope for a better life, and a fifty-four year old alcoholic who was waiting for his knee to break so the hospitals would finally ease a long ailing pain, beyond the knee itself, which no amount of wine could relieve. That was the pain I shared for four days, that of being looked down upon, meandering from place to place with no direction home, no place of your own, and feeling worthless. It was the pain of addictions, of life wilting away. It was the pain of another failed American dream.
After recovering from a relentless illness known to the regulars of the Denver Rescue Mission as “The Mission Condition”, I traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, home of the largest concentration of Muslims in North America, and spent more than two weeks researching anti-Semitism in the American Muslim community. This issue affects me personally because although my parents are Muslim, the majority of my prep school and nearly all of my friends are Jewish. Having previously researched Muslims as a fellow member of their community, in Dearborn I wished to go further.
To that end, I immersed myself with the Muslims as Mr. Jacob Malachi, a Jew who wore a Star of David necklace but had an open mind and was trying to gain a greater understanding of the Muslim community. In irony, I was not the Jew investigating the Muslim community’s hatred of his people, but rather I was the Muslim literally putting himself in the skin of a Jew in order to directly feel the hate in his own community. My research was especially provocative because at the time Israel was waging war in Lebanon and the world Muslim population was more feverishly incited than ever.
The story was about relationships: between religions, between nations, between local communities, and between individuals. I did not try to rile up my subjects by zealously attacking all things Muslim; rather I closely examined the effects of my efforts to build friendships with them from the position of being a member of their much touted arch nemesis – the Jews. I wondered whether they would receive me with grace in light of my curious and tolerant disposition or attack me in light of my Jewish identity.
I interviewed the religious leaders of two mosques and attended three Friday prayer services and two memorials for victims of Israel’s war in Lebanon. I met with patrons of the Bint Jbeil (Hezbollah’s capital) Club and journalists of the Arab American Newspaper. I rubbed shoulders with hundreds of angry Muslims at a peace rally in Detroit and thousands outside the White House, where I heard, unfortunately not for the first time, the chant “La illaha ilallah, Hezbollah! Hezbollah!”
Through this journey I discovered that American Muslims, with an emphasis on American, make a surprisingly strong distinction between Jews and Zionists. Walking amongst them in the streets, restaurants, and mosques while displaying a Star of David necklace and my school’s Jewish Club t-shirt, I had expected to get beaten up within days. Instead, I was met with a curious hospitality. I found that Muslim anger draws not from a religious or cultural conflict, but almost solely from the political quagmire of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Certainly no clash of civilizations is tearing the world asunder. To the contrary, Muslims told me they felt a closer kinship with the religious culture of Judaism than of Christianity.
Still, ugly ideas reached me. I discovered once again that many Muslims hold elaborate conspiracy theories about Jews, which seemed to be instilled by the political context of their upbringing. The following misconceptions were conveyed to me: Israel is eradicating Lebanese civilians so that they can clear “open livingspace” for Zionists to settle; the beheadings, assassinations, suicide bombings, and other terrorist acts occurring in Iraq and across the Middle East are often orchestrated by Mossad agents in order to suppress and vilify the Muslim people; and under Zionist influence, President Bush is waging not a war on terrorism, but a war on Islam.
I tried to mitigate their paranoia and conspiracy theories by presenting myself as a Jew speaking on behalf of the peaceful and wholesome aspirations held by most of his people. At the beginning they were mostly suspicious and cynical, but after meeting a Jew who defied all stereotypes and advocated peace, love, and unity, their animosity subsided. By the end, they embraced me as one of their own. That accomplishment, of making a positive difference in the minds of others, by itself made my trip worthwhile.
Resuming the topic of America’s subcultures and underclass, I spent August 4th to the 11th living on the streets of Detroit. Among the reasons I chose Detroit as the setting for my research were its extensive pockets of urban decay, large homeless community, infamous history of racial friction, and 85% black population – all a stark contrast to my home community of upper class whites. For two nights I meandered across Detroit, eating from soup kitchens and sleeping on sidewalks, grass lots, and park benches. By this time I had gotten used to going a week without a shower, having fast-food shops deny me their bathroom, and being watched ominously by police officers as if my status as a homeless person was pretense enough for an arrest.
A low point hit at 3:00 am one night, when the stench of other people’s urine was becoming too much for me to handle as I laid trying to sleep on a hard granite sidewalk on Detroit’s main thoroughfare. Mercedes and BMWs were passing by often carrying upper class whites from the night clubs to the suburbs. As they sped by women in the cars would look at me with scorn. I began to worry if they were going to call the police to remove another bum, another nuisance, probably living off welfare supplied by their “socialist-high taxes”. So I got up and staggered in a direction which seemed to have less activity – East Detroit. Looking for a safe haven to rest in until daylight, I stumbled into a cemetery. Though it looked comfortable, I wasn’t yet desperate enough to sleep beside gravestones. So I went to the ally behind the church, plopped on the gravel, and rested against the worn out backpack from which Emerson’s Self-Reliance had prodded me all night.
The next five days had me in a Salvation Army homeless shelter in Detroit's most intense “black ghetto”, the Cass Corridor as locals call it, where five murders had occurred in the previous month. At first the workers wouldn’t let me in because I was under 18, but after I explained the nature of my research, a twenty-four year old named Shabazz took an interest. He had grown up in the Projects and was an English major at the local college. His girlfriend had been found raped with her throat slit in a dumpster the day I arrived. So I became his means of escape from the pains of life in the ghetto, as deep into the night we bonded over literature, philosophy, and creative writing.
At the shelter I awoke each morning on a concrete floor with all of my body aching. By this time I had a long, curly beard and my skin began to assume the dirty, dusty complexion that frequently characterizes the homeless. Nonetheless, my mind had never been more animated. Since leaving home I had taken over 40 pages of notes and over 50 hours of recorded interviews. I was living my research, 24/7, spending long hours interviewing individuals at the homeless shelter about how they perceived the state of the African-American community, discrimination in America, and the horrible environment just outside their doors. Walking down the littered streets of the Cass Corridor, I talked to desperate vagrants selling heroin, crack, prostitution, and pretty much anything else to gather enough money to satisfy the daily quota of their drug slave master. With notebook and voice recorder at hand, I spent a night in the crack houses of the city’s notorious Projects, interviewing its inhabitants about how they got there and what was stopping them from rising out. Many had gone through “detox” and rehabilitation centers, but upon finishing were returned to the Projects where they fell back into old habits.
I was striving to uncover the root causes of the ghetto and to devise policies that might ameliorate its cyst-like subsistence. So I returned to the homeless shelter to discuss with the aid workers my findings. Shabazz said to me, “This area is a ghetto because the powers-that-be want it that way. The cops never patrol the Cass Corridor. They just don’t care about the rapes and murders that happen here each month… unless the victim is white. Then you’ll see the whole media flooding the scene. But when the murdered teen is black, or when the woman raped, murdered, and stuffed in a dumpster is black, like my girlfriend, nobody bats an eye.”
So why do I do this kind of research? All writers are in perpetual pursuit of inspiration. Men of letters, more than anything else, are men of ideas. I seek inspiration through immersing myself in the primary source and striving to get so intimate with the raw truth that I can feel it, taste it, interrogate it, explore it personally, and from there, deliver its essence in the written word. In that cause I have journeyed into the world of the homeless, the hippies, the Muslims, and the black ghetto, for unique ideas in the future are built upon unique experiences in the present. Such is the essence of my immersion research. That it receives no grades, makes it pure; that it challenges the complacency of beliefs, class, and background, makes it inspiring; that it leads to truth and personal growth, makes it my passion.