DeSisto School Part II

I began to sound SK out. He had been at this place for two years with significant gaps where he lived on the street. He was a wellspring of gossip about the functioning of the school and the infractions of the students. He provided a sort of oral history of the place in which heroes and villains emerged and waged battle. My favorites were the stories of a notorious boy who had been placed on the farm in the recent past. 

Fire codes were flagrantly ignored by those who ran the school, but somehow, against all reason, the farm had a fire extinguisher. This boy had used it to beat the staff member supervising his misery within an inch of his life, leaving him with several facial fractures. On another occasion he had punched the glass out of a window and opened up his wrists on the glass that remained. He was always on the farm. There was no speaking to him but I wished him well. I thought he was braver than the rest of us, leaving aside SK. He had known this boy, described him as someone who was mostly silent but completely unpredictable. 

It was through a recounting of the transgressions of others that we sussed each other out. It provided us with plausible deniability. Snitching was embedded in the fabric of life at Desisto school. It was always possible that you would be betrayed. You couldn’t even be angry with the person who sold you out. It was their only way to escape from a corner and have the dubious privileges of a shower and normal food reinstated. 

As we warmed to each other he began to tell me about his escapes, of how on one occasion he hid under a couch for two days, pissing on the carpet until he felt safe leaving. I had always wondered why it smelled like urine in the common area. 

He told me about his months on the road trading blowjobs for survival and booze. He drank to take the edge off and wash the taste of semen from his mouth. As we established trust we made the terrifying leap from telling war stories to making plans, and in the bitter cold of Massachusetts in January we devised a scheme to leave without being captured.  

One night at 12:00 AM we quietly left our bunks. No one woke up, even when we broke the lock that separated us from our shoes and coats. Then we ran in pools of darkness towards the gym and auditorium where we had never played a game or watched a performance. 

It was unlocked. We pilfered warm clothes from a closet then made our way to the basement where we hid beneath a tarp behind a boiler. We stayed there for 24 hours, pissing in the corner. We each had a baseball bat, and in the event that a member of the staff happened upon us we were going to beat them into unconsciousness. This almost occurred. One of the maintenance men came to the basement. I gripped my bat tight, readying myself to attack, but he left after a moment and there we stayed, going from hungry to starving. 

To make the hours tolerable I engaged in a pleasure I had not enjoyed for 7 months, which was cursing. “Fuck”, “Shit”, “Piss”, “Dick”, and “Pussy” were edited out of our vocabulary through a number of punitive measures and they tasted wonderful in my mouth. Every sentence was a proper noun sandwiched between “Fuck” under that tarp. In the mildewed stink of the basement of this deteriorating building I discovered that I could speak once again.

When the next night fell we emerged from hiding. There were bicycles in the auditorium for reasons that escape me and we took two of them. We hurriedly walked them across the campus. Every time my shoe broke through the crust of ice coating the snow I thought it would be the giveaway that caused us to be apprehended. SK was brave. He knew the layout of the administrative offices and entered to steal the petty cash drawer. This would allow us to get bus tickets to anywhere that wasn’t here. 

I watched him enter. The cold and my terror made the night hyperreal, realer than my days of sullen resentment and the delicate navigation of politics that takes place in any cultish bureaucracy. I had been dead for so long that the sudden return to life was too much. I did not know if I was up to the task of hauling myself through a life where I wasn’t commanded to do things, a life riddled with choice. 

Choice was immediately removed when SK emerged from the mansion at a sprint. He slid as he stopped, saying quietly and clearly that we needed to run. There were paths for cars that had been plowed and were clear of ice and snow. We jumped on our bikes and rode as fast as we could. I did not ask for an explanation. 

When we reached the road we turned downhill. This was faster. Between painful breaths I asked him what had happened. He told me that he had entered through the front door and walked towards the business office. When he swung the office door open he almost walked into a staff meeting. Every head turned in his direction.  

I asked him if they followed. He didn’t know. A pair of lights crested the top of the hill behind us and we dove into the ditch on the side of the road, ducking into the dead ferns and stones. My pants got very wet and this worried me. The lights passed by, didn’t slow, didn’t stop and there was a moment of peace there in the margins. It was foundational to the power of Desisto school that a rumor circulated through the student body that the local sheriff’s department was paid a ‘gratuity’ for apprehending runaways. We ditched the bikes. They seemed useless if we were going to throw ourselves off the road whenever a vehicle appeared in the distance.  

I don’t know anymore how long we walked but at some point we reached a railroad crossing and followed the tracks. I felt safer when we left the road and despite my own untenable position in the order of things I felt gratitude. It was a beautiful night. A generous moon made the snow glow and the houses near the tracks were radiating orange light from their windows. I imagined the families within, how they enjoyed a sense of normalcy. How the children were built right, not crazy or dangerous in the way I was.  

We talked as though we were kids on an adventure rather than newly minted homeless runaways. It felt good to say fuck, to talk about how we would eat or where we would stay. The precariousness of our position just passed us by. We were free and that seemed to be enough. Eventually we reached a highway. We walked beside it, moving with the big trucks through the snow. 

We were both tired when we walked into the parking lot of the truck stop. SK immediately set out to get a ride on one of the rigs. I joined him in the effort, screwing up my courage and then getting to it. Everything would be much easier if I could get closer to home. I needed help, a floor to sleep on or at least a way to get rides, someone to help me learn how to be unsheltered. 

We were rebuffed over and over. Sometimes a driver would give us money or cigarettes, a turn of good fortune. We bought packaged pastries in the truck stop. The sugar and the nicotine and the delightful buzz of caffeine kept my fear at bay, all the questions about how I would live and where, what I would do to not die in the cold. 

Finally a driver agreed to give us a ride. I don’t remember what story we told him about who we were but it was very likely unconvincing and cumbersome. Whatever we said he saw through it but didn’t confront us about it yet. After spending the five dollar bills he gave us on more garbage we began hurtling on the highway and I fought sleep as I sipped a coke. Eventually I lay down on the floor of the cab, SK already departed from consciousness in the bed above me. 

I awoke to the knowledge that I was being studied. The trucker was squatting between the seats, staring at me. SK was already awake. He went on to call bullshit on us and our story. He was not without sympathy. He told us about himself. He was a veteran. He was also a gay man who lived with his partner on the outskirts of Albany. He knew we were runaways. He wanted our story. And so we unfolded, spilling out the minor atrocity that was Desisto. Then he brought us to his apartment. 

His partner was laying in an armchair with a slice of pizza in his lap, watching Pulp Fiction at the exact moment when Uma Thurman’s character overdoses on heroin. He invited us to eat and we did. There was something heartbreaking about it. Living in New York there is a foundational aspect of pizza that gets into your bones. I felt I could go an entire day on a slice, that this could be the bedrock of my diet as a person with no place to live. It connected to so many memories of my earlier life that I felt overwhelmed, like I was about to burst. 

I have thought quite a bit about this man in the years that followed. It’s likely that for many readers he would arouse suspicion. I have come to the conclusion that this is unjustified, an insult to a person who ever so briefly provided us with food, shelter and transportation. It is very possible that he had lived through a similar situation in his life and that his empathy was strong enough to pull him across the divide of conventional wisdom. Ultimately all that can be said is that he was kind. He never asked for anything, never touched me or SK. He seemed concerned at our alienation from our parents and I didn’t have the vocabulary to express that we were unwilling participants in a cult that sought to dominate the emotional lives of our families. 

It wasn’t long before I asked for the phone to call my parents. My father picked up promptly, told me he couldn’t talk to me, then asked where I was. I hung up. That had been foolish. Now they could figure out where we were. Very dangerous. There were stories at Desisto of parents hiring bounty hunters to retrieve their runaway children. 

I panicked. As soon as I hung up the phone rang and I knew it was my father calling back. I had fucked up what could have been a comfortable couple of days and I knew it but my heart hurt so badly that  I couldn’t help but try. I basically ran out the door, fumbling an excuse with SK in tow, something about buying cigarettes. We ran through the streets frantically hailing a ride from another kind soul who took us several miles and then gave us all the change in his car. It was enough to buy us each a ticket to Albany. We spent hours in a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street from a station, each of us drinking endlessly from our sad cups of coffee, waiting for the bus to arrive. 

We were deposited at the Greyhound station and into the frigid morning. The possibility that I could die of cold this winter. I carried a piece of paper on me. On it was my name and my family’s phone number. I felt that this would allow whatever agency discovered my corpse on a city street to identify me. I didn’t want to die anonymously, unmoored and unremembered. If there was someone left to mourn my passing than I was still someone. 

The city was cold. The air was dry. Wherever we were in Albany was a desolation and the men’s shelter was the center of it. It was a soup kitchen that allowed dozens of us to sleep on mats on the floor. I slept with my boots as pillows. The air smelled of clothes that got wet and never dried and of feet. In the morning we were given stale donuts and pushed out the door. I’ve come to learn that this is standard practice in homeless shelters. If you’re lucky they will allow you to ride out the freezing night but when the sun rises you are dismissed from their presence to while away the hours of discomfort and boredom.  

SK and I had serious logistical problems. We had no ID of any kind. Neither of us knew our social security numbers. The shelter was requiring us to furnish some proof of our identity and we were using fake names. We couldn’t trust our parents not to sell us out to the school. We were both aware that a return to Desisto would result in a period of psychological torture in which we were ‘cornered’, ‘sheeted’ and ‘farmed’.  

In the absence of any actionable path to identification we sat at the library with the other homeless men while nights on the street barreled down upon us. We all scattered throughout the building and hid among the stacks in an effort to avoid attention. I read childhood favorites, even stole a paperback to bring back to the shelter and read in the dim light that never went out in that sad place.  

In the morning the director of the mission said that we couldn’t stay there if they couldn’t identify us. But if we joined the biblical recovery program that they ran we could guarantee ourselves a place on the floor and food in the evening. Stupidly we said that we were atheists. We hadn’t yet learned that conviction wasn’t worth dying for. He became angry and cast us out, disdain on his face. 

SK and I had a disagreement. He wanted to move on. I didn’t know where we’d be moving on to. I was holding out for a friend of a friend who was attending SUNY Albany, a guy in a band who was originally from Long Island. I thought there would be enough solidarity amongst punk rockers to guarantee us a place to stay, maybe even a weekend drive downstate. I called him time and again, wasting valuable change on a hopeless chance. I didn’t consider how he would be placing his own housing at risk or the spectrum of needs that I would present however much I might be unaware of them. 

Eventually SK ditched me. I understand why. I was trying to get home. He was trying to get free. I took a bus to the SUNY Albany campus. I rummaged through the garbage cans in the food court. There was very little to be had and so I walked outside into a driving cold winter rain that soaked me through. I found a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a bag on the ground, as unfortunate, lost and sodden as I was. I ate it without shame, with an almost religious reverence. Perhaps I wasn’t an atheist after all.  I could feel the shaking of hypoglycemia ease and I looked for a place to sleep that was sheltered from the rain. 

I slept under a loading dock that night. It was protected from the rain and hidden from casual glances. I hadn’t thought to gather newspapers to shove inside my clothes, which was a piece of street knowledge that I had been granted by one of the older men at the mission. I came to realize that it really helps to have a head start on having no place to live. Given a summer’s worth of planning, information and acquisition a person could better prepare for what is an inherently deadly situation. It occurred to me that I was fucked.

Over the course of my two weeks out of Desisto school I had waged a campaign of terror against my parents that was calculated and precise. There was an hour’s span of time between my sisters’ arrival home from school and my parents’ arrival home from work. I made sure to call during that time everyday. I would speak to both of my sisters and talk about how I was dying on the streets of a strange city, whipping them into a panicked frenzy that my parents’ would have to navigate. I thought I could wear down their resolve but they didn’t budge and for the most part wouldn’t speak to me at all. It was a return to Desisto school or nothing.   

After several nights spent sleeping on the SUNY Albany campus I had found a heating vent that was especially comfortable to sleep in front of and when night fell I would curl up there, hugging myself tightly. One night a campus police cruiser pulled in front of me and a lone cop emerged from the car. He asked me who I was and what I was doing there and I answered with relative honesty. I was homeless and wasn’t allowed to stay at the shelter anymore. No, I didn’t have any identification. 

That was all it took. He said he was detaining me on suspicion of solicitation. He thought I was a prostitute. I felt like I was probably due a shower if I was going to be selling my ass for money, but that did not change the state of affairs. He was going to transfer me to the custody of the city police. 

I waited in the back of the car behind the metal grating and luxuriated in warmth in a strange mixture of terror and comfort. It wasn’t long before the city police arrived and transferred me into their car. It was a different vibe. A male and female pig, paired up to retrieve a sad teenage runaway. They plied me with questions about my identity and I was fucking up my answers. After a few fails the male cop turned to look at me and told me that he was going to shoot me in the head and leave my body in a ditch if I didn’t tell him who I was. He seemed very sincere. I wished that our positions were reversed but shooting him in the head sounded too easy. 

I told them. Who I was, where I’d come from. They brought me to the station and told me they couldn’t hold me. I was ‘of age’ in New York and was as free to walk the street in search of pavement as anyone. And then they held me anyway, called my parents, and told me that I would stay handcuffed to a desk until a childhood friend of my father’s came from Woodstock to bring me back to Stockbridge, MA. I wanted to sleep but couldn’t. I knew what I was going back to. 

He arrived in the early hours of the morning and I was released from my handcuffs. I walked out of the station exhausted and got into the front seat of the car, the first time I’d ridden shotgun in many months. I fought sleep as he drove North. We talked about nothing of importance. Not about the school, not about my time on the street or why I ran. Certainly not about what I was in for when I returned. Mostly we talked about Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Contact with the founding document of AA was the only decent thing that had happened to me in my time at Desisto. In my first month, during endless questing for an avenue out of there, one of the sad and futile creatures on staff had told me that the best way to ‘graduate’ would be to address the problems that landed me there. Then they gave me the AA Big Book.

I dug into it, and though it had been written around 70 years earlier I experienced complete and utter identification with the experience described. I had never before known something true about myself. This knowing was hard, so hard that it filled me with regret, but this book explained in plain text an avenue out of the jails, institutions and death that had been the landscape of my future. I resolved to do as this seemingly ancient book said to the best of my ability. 

In the wonderful heat of my father’s friend’s car I plied him for information about how to be in AA. I hadn’t had any opportunity to meet someone in the program outside of the confines of the school. I have no recollection of what he said. It was very likely the garden variety suggestions that any program neophyte is given: Don’t drink and go to meetings; one day at a time; keep it simple stupid.

I told him that I hadn’t eaten for days and that it was likely that I would be punished in a number of ways, one of those being extreme dietary restrictions- could we please get something to eat? And so we did, at some diner somewhere, a place that might not exist anymore, swallowed up by a bourgeoisie renaissance or a post-2008 slide into rural decay. 

There isn’t a hint of recollection about what I ate besides french fries.I told him that I needed to use the bathroom. We were seated in the rear of the restaurant. I was facing the door, he was looking the other way. I walked outside and then ran through the parking lot and into the woods. I thought I heard him calling my name. 

My father’s friend is dead now, killed on an interstate off-ramp when he exited his vehicle, his body thrown or dragged or run down by some young man who ruined a slew of lives, his own included. I went to the funeral in the darkest days of my own life and I wondered why it had happened to him. And there’s no reason. There’s no reason for anything. 

I sat on a log in the woods. It was a warm day, steam rising off of melting snow. Then I walked in the woods along the road for a time until I came to a town. There was a library there, tiny, warm. The librarian said I could stay there even though I didn’t have a library card. I knew so little about how the world works. I read a book until I began to drift off to sleep, then stood and walked to the reference desk. I asked the librarian if she knew where there was a payphone and she directed me to a complex of medical offices nearby.

More walking, but things felt better here. It wasn’t Albany, full of towering concrete and hard living, a downtown denuded of residential life. There were families, children, people other than the desperate men for whom good luck was a thin mat on a hard floor. 

I remember clearly the hallway where I made my final call to my parents. It was a reckoning of sorts. I spoke to my mother, explained that I truly wanted to come home and be a part of normal life again and that I could place a guarantee on abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Otherwise it would be a matter of years before they heard from me again. She relented. My father was coming to pick me up.

I sat in that hallway for hours, not entirely trusting the arrangement. I smiled at the people who passed me by. I asked several if it was an alright place to wait for a ride and the kindly women would assure me that yes, I was okay where I was. Several times I nodded off. It was the safest I’d felt in weeks. When my father arrived from a four hour drive I wasn’t sure what to do. Hug him? Or run the fuck away? The latter didn’t happen and it is quite possible that the former didn’t either. It didn’t feel like a reunion. I was scared that it was a ruse.

I don’t recall him asking me anything much about where I’d been and what I’d done. These things were mostly boring anyway. I froze. I starved. My life was threatened. As far as I am aware these are the commonplace indignities that homeless people encounter. I was worse at it than I wished that I was. 

There was a moment of panic when he told me we were driving to Stockbridge to get my things. There was nothing in me that wanted to face the gaze of all those miserable people, and the nagging fear that I would be dropped off and left was raised and itchy. If I received any further indications that I would be an inmate of the Desisto School again I was prepared to jump from the car and run again. 

We arrived and parked near the mansion. I said I could not, would not exit the car. It loomed large in the turning of day to night. It looked abandoned. It looked haunted. The lights within were those of an ambush predator- come too close and you’ll be swallowed up. 

I sat in the car and the sleep that always pushed on me when I was warm returned. I snapped awake when my father returned. He wasn’t carrying anything. It was Desisto School policy that if a kid was on the run for more than 24 hours their things were donated to Goodwill. All my books, clothes and journals were either waiting to be sold at a thrift store or had been thrown out. I didn’t care. I wanted nothing of the taint of this place on me or in my life. My father seemed angry about it but he was angry much of the time anyway. 

There were two stops on the drive south. We spent the night at the house of the man I’d run from. He wasn’t petty about it. Maybe he understood. I’d spent so much time chewing on the message that I was an irredeemable piece of shit that I expected everyone I met to have heard this message and relayed it down the line. We ate pizza that night. I had three slices and felt fat, and it occurred to me that this was a message from Desisto School as well. They wanted waifish boys and girls who measured their portions of salad and turned their noses up at sugar and flour. 

The next morning we continued on our drive and my father unceremoniously announced that he was taking me to another boarding school. Just to look, to see if it was the right fit for me. I don’t know if he realized how damaged I was. Maybe he didn’t care. I don’t remember much of the place aside from it not looking like a prison and noting that students were allowed to walk alone and unsupervised on the grounds. I didn’t trust it and I didn’t trust him. I said I’d consider it but I’d already made a choice to avoid somewhere that seemed so well adjusted. I was tainted and spoiled and would stick out like a sore thumb in a place like this, a dark miasma crowning my head. 

We arrived at my family home as the sun was setting. My sisters had made a banner welcoming me home. My grandfather was there. All these people were assembled, not giving orders and expecting to love me as though I was the person that I used to be. I was safe, I was warm, and lonely in a way I couldn’t express.

The Desisto School Part I

At the age of 16 I was placed in a residential school for troubled kids that was later shuttered by the state of Massachussettes for neglect, child abuse and financial impropriety. You can locate the state’s complaint against the institution online, and though I am glad that the man who profited most from this institution is dead and gone there are former staff members out in the world who are irredeemable pieces of shit, first among them being the troglyditic Arizona sheriff Paul Babeau, a man who almost certainly had sex with one or more students while they were under his care.

Several organizations have designated it as a cult and I can’t say this wasn’t true. The founder of the school lived in a luxurious mansion where he was served extravagant breakfasts by the students who were most able to ingratiate themselves to him. The rest of us lived in dilapidated, freezing dorms and slept in 10×10 rooms in groups of four. If one of the bunkmates was considered a flight risk two of us would have to drag our mattresses onto the floor. One of us would sleep in front of the door and the other would sleep below the window which would be barricaded with portions of the bunk beds. I got used to the shaking of the bed while one of the other students masturbated.   

My arrival was traumatic. I had gone from punching my father in a drunken rage to sleeping in a sump to the back of a police car to the psychiatric emergency room of a hospital to this place. Upon my arrival they confiscated my clothes and rifled through my belongings. They took my books. The same for any cassettes or CD’s my mother had thoughtfully packed. They took all my medications. They would be administered by staff. This included a tube of ointment for the terrifying rash I had developed on my crotch from being a drunken runaway who pissed his pants and then lived in them. Later that day a grown woman would apply this to my perineum and penis. I was not allowed to touch it. 

I was bereft. I badly wanted to speak to my mother. I was told that I would be allowed to call my parents twice a month and that the phone call would be monitored by the staff. Any complaints about the conditions at the school would be considered to be emotionally unhealthy manipulation and would result in punishment. I was told that I could write to them as I pleased but that any and all correspondence coming into or out of the school would be subject to the same rules and oversight. 

I felt profoundly unwell. Nicotine withdrawal isn’t pleasant and neither is withdrawal from caffeine. I don’t think I had been drinking long enough and hard enough to be physically dependent but I could certainly be wrong. The school cared nothing for this. When I woke from a fitful sleep to my second day in this place I sat at the breakfast table with approximately 20 strangers and ate nothing. How could I? What little remained of me after two years of alcohol fueled trauma had been removed from its environment and placed in an impossible situation. 

I say impossible because my efforts to obtain information about this place and how it ran were frighteningly effusive and I began to realize that there was an expectation that I stay in this place for as long as it took for me to get well. When I tried to parse out what exactly ‘well’ meant I was met with extremely vague answers until I realized that they themselves didn’t know. It was all up to the man in the mansion’s arbitrary whims which were no doubt heavily informed by his love of money. 

We painted his house that summer. In fact we were called ‘zen painters’. The idea was that the labor of painting could be viewed as a type of meditation that would be transformative to those of doing the work. There was even a little butterfly included in the pamphlets. Everything was Zen here. There was a transparent and gross sexual division of labor, and so the young women were called Zen gardeners. The older students who were able to kiss the right asses were called Zen waiters.

This was obviously a bunch of bullshit. We were not trained in any mindfulness techniques, we did not have the concept of Zen explained to us and we did not have any encounters with the luminaries of Zen Buddhism. This was a marketing ploy to appeal to the forward thinking parents desperate to convince themselves that they had done the right thing for their child, so this is what we were called as we labored in direct sunlight with no glasses, no sunscreen and little water.   

I played the game as best I could. I thought this was my clearest trajectory out. I worked hard, was cloyingly polite and desperately constructive with my criticisms in the nightly ‘encounter groups’ in which we accused one another of petty infractions of rules, of emotionally unhealthy behavior or of slacking as we performed the forced unpaid work that no one thought to call slavery. 

After approximately a month of tears and panic I began to see how the game was run and I began to perform the role of a well-adjusted Desisto School student. I knew who to single out. I participated in just the right amount of verbal bullying to not get bullied myself and I kept my communication with my parents on a very surface level. I wanted to see them and talk to them and if the cost was being dishonest, of not talking about the kid who almost died of lithium poisoning and dehydration, or the girl who had a sexual relationship with a 40 year old teacher, or the building that they called ‘the farm’ then so be it. 

As with the actual plants in soil type of farm, at Desisto it was both a noun and a past-tense verb. The farm itself was a one room brick building with a bathroom. Kids were sent there for the most serious infractions, all of which amounted to running away or making plans to do so. Allegedly there were other infractions that could get you placed there, but overwhelmingly it was a punitive measure to discourage flight. 

Rumors about what happened to you when you were sent to the farm were manifold- that you were only allowed to eat puffed rice and skim milk, that you wore no underwear under the Dickies suit you were forced to wear, that you could only use the bathroom once a day so that you inevitably were sitting in your own urine- but they all agreed on a single point: That until you confessed to the staff member watching over you an exact and detailed list of your transgressions leading up to and during your escape you would sit in a hardback chair with your knees touching a wall, a position that you were not permitted to move from. No reading, no writing, no talking to the staff. As with any cult there was an appropriation of language: You were ‘cornered’ or ‘chained’ or ‘sheeted’ or subject to a ‘limit structure’ which were all codewords for humiliating psychological torture. Someone who was ‘farmed’ was not to be spoken to on the rare occasions when necessity dictated that they leave their personal hell. 

The threat of ending up on the farm was a relatively successful though unimaginative form of torture that scared most of us away from any form of escape that wasn’t into our own minds. It strikes me now, 23 years later, that had there been even the slightest introduction to the ‘Zen’ motif that the sadistic pedophile who ran the school liked to pepper our forced labor with that we may have been better able to endure the farm, to find some peace in the petty and controlling nightmare he had devised. But we were not so lucky. 

There was a silly hierarchy that all of us were placed into that was reflected in the dorm to which we were assigned and our position within that dorm. The most recent arrivals were ‘New Boys/Girls’. If you abided by the arbitrary and mercurial rules you would be redesignated as an ‘Alternative Boy/Girl’. From there it was a long grind to the status of ‘Steward’, which conferred upon you both the privilege of living in the mansion and the responsibility of making the lives of those below you more terrible. Steward’s were entrusted with the sacrosanct task of nit-picking every aspect of their underlings behavior and given that they were no more than 18 themselves they could be remarkably petty, a tendency that the rules allowed them to run wild with. 

At Desisto School all the internees with the exception of the stewards had to be no more than one arm’s length away from another student and we were required to travel in groups of three. This was called ‘spacing’ and it was as difficult to execute as it sounds. We were expected to adhere to this at all times which made the need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night a delicate negotiation, as the entire room would need to accompany whoever was unfortunate enough to be the first to give into the need.  

While any fair-minded person would be frustrated at the thought of adjudicating departures from this practice the Stewards were generally not fair-minded. This might have simply been an outcome of giving 17 and 18 year-olds the right to declare people in violation of rules and then patting them on the head for doing so. It also might be the case that these kids were taught over the course of several years that their own welfare depended on a willingness to step on the heads of those who were below them on the ladder. Or it might be that only a sociopath can thrive in this sort of environment. 

My mood has always existed in a quantum state. I present whatever face seems most advantageous depending on the party observing. I can pass from rage to depression to completely impartial practicality if positioned at the center of a circle of three and made to spin. This was helpful to me in my time at Desisto School. While all these emotional states existed at the same time the one that was given voice in this place was always practicality and this was enough to barely get me up the ladder. I ‘spun’ (another puzzling use of words) into the Alt-boys dorm and after not too long I was the ‘Dorm Leader’, a shitty job in which you were tasked with the responsibility of issuing commands in the daily cleanings and weekend ‘super cleaning’ of our living space. As well, as a dorm leader you needed to use a stopwatch in the shower to enforce the unbreakable and unquestioned tyranny of time. We were permitted thirty second group showers in the morning. 

Our bowel movements were monitored as well and I am proud to say that I drew a line on this issue.. While the unpredictable temperament of urine was spared the clock, shitting was another thing entirely. As everyone knows, there is nothing quite like a leisurely sit on a porcelain bowl. With the knowledge that the toilet stall was an invitation to indolence we were permitted no more than 2.5 minutes in which to defecate.  This had two outcomes as far as I was able to gauge: You either left the stall with a shitty ass or you mastered the art of the clean drop at the expense of hemorrhoids. I was more inclined to the latter. The fact is that getting a turd out of your asshole with only blood on the paper requires a kind of full-bodied approach in which you spread your asscheeks as far apart as possible and sit on the seat so that it pulls you even further apart. From there it is a matter of expediency, of forcing the feces out as fast as possible so that it made no contact with the rest of your ass. 

I oversaw all these things, these petty and fascistic rules that institutions of social control need to exercise. They serve as a kind of thermometer in the turkey of defeat. If the trains are running on time and so on. Of course there was always trouble brewing- another hallmark of petty authoritarianism is the need for an enemy and at Desisto School the enemy was within. While students fleeing the school was never a regular occurrence it did happen periodically and for this I felt both envy and relief that I was not the only one who wanted to get as far away from here as possible. A boy named SK was at once the best and worst at running away ended up in our dorm. While I can’t recollect how many times he had successfully made it off the campus it was enough to summon a deep feeling of respect for him. But whatever the number of successful departures he inevitably arrived back at the school. This is because he wanted to be loved by his parents and live with his family and they refused to have any contact with him, having greedily drank from the Kool-Aid of this ridiculous place. 

As part of a young person’s residence at the school (and I use the term ‘school’ loosely as I attended perhaps a week of classroom instruction while there) the parent’s were expected to attend monthly meetings in which Michael Desisto himself appeared to harangue our moms and dads about how deeply manipulated they had been by their children and how this was indicative of the codependent love that was actively destroying their family. On the whole I think my father was far more taken in by this amateurish psychobabble than my mother but nevertheless the months stretched on. I think this might have been where Michael Desisto accomplished a measure of control that many cults aspire to. 

There were tremendous dividends to having these meetings. It allowed the parents to imagine that not only were they healing their children, they were healing themselves. And thus was fealty pledged to a shitty little empire ruled by decree of a greedy old man who exercised absolute control over a fiefdom of children engaged in a constant circular firing squad. If a student ran away their parents were supposed to cease all contact and refuse to take calls and to contact all their friends’ parents and the whole extended family and demand that they not provide to their children so much as a porch to crawl under and die. 

Obviously this poses a serious danger to the young person. How would a kid, displaced and likely to be unfamiliar with how to access social services survive outside whatever bureaucratic channels runaway and homeless youth are able to access? In SK’s case the answer was getting drunk enough to deal with the realities of trading sex for food and shelter and then doing just that. But he always came back, and I don’t know whether that was the pain of being completely cut-off from his family or a simple need for stability. 

No matter the case I respected him. I was so dedicated to leaving this place through the front door that I hadn’t considered the rear. I knew there were deficits in my knowledge of the geographic locale- I had only been off-campus once in the time I was there. As well, I had no real ability to survive, only an ability to endure. Endurance can take you very far but if you don’t get the hang of survival you’re fucked.

Online Dating

Out of an abundance of sexual frustration and (apparently) a masochistic streak I signed up for a dating website recently. “Why not?” I thought. “What do I have to lose?” This is an optimism that isn’t typical of me. There’s always something to lose, even on your deathbed. Even when the stakes are so low.  

I only have one good picture of myself. I am holding my niece. We look like an oil painting. The dark is behind us, the light before us. Neither of us is smiling nor are we frowning. Instead we look surprised and perhaps a little bit scared, beholding something that is both great and terrible. I took this sacred photo and uploaded it to a website where people shop for each other. 

After this I wrote about myself in trite, petite soundbites that avoided more than they admitted. Politics, spirit, dreams and aspirations are all distilled into choices on a drop down menu. Instead of ‘anarcho-communist’ I chose ‘liberal’, a thing I most certainly am not. I was able to flaunt my graduate degree, a diploma that is only useful for wiping asses or kindling fires, without seeming too snobbish. I was asked to list my astrological sign, my preferences regarding children, cigarettes, alcohol, voting  and domesticated animals. These are the criteria by which a person’s worthiness of being known is judged. And then, important above all things, is one’s career or lack thereof. 

As I began to look at the people to whom I would apparently and inexplicably be wedded I began to notice that there is a sort of form to the creation of a profile on these sights, particularly where pictures are concerned, that verges on a sort of modern folk art, a haiku for ugly Americans to compose as the world burns. I can only comment on this phenomenon as it pertains to women- I didn’t sign up to look at men, although this would be an interesting thing to do in the pursuit of a more thorough knowledge of the limits of human imagination. 

While the order of presentation can change, the common elements remain. There is the obligatory selfie that is usually taken in a car or in front of a mirror. This part of the pattern is understandable- the website uses some unfortunate algorithm to authenticate your face, a technology that I can only assume is also used by the military industrial complex for less innocuous purposes. 

There is also a recurring though not quite universal photo in which the person is posing in a location that is obviously not in the United States. I interpret this to be an assertion of the subject’s worldliness. I guess I  shouldn’t judge people for doing this. People take pictures when they travel. It is just that I hate to travel and even if I didn’t I couldn’t. I can’t afford to travel because I can’t afford to anything. And maybe this is what it boils down to. There is a class dimension to these things, as there is to all things in this awful society. 

Other ingredients of this form are the brunch shot, in which the person sits before a completely denuded breakfast plate, mimosa in hand, which appears to be another assertion of one’s position in the class hierarchy as well as testament to the fact that they are fun all day, all the time. Weekends are leisurely, the weeks are full of important and well paying work. Then there is the group photo, in which they pose with people that are apparently dear friends and relatives. The photo says that they are rooted in a community of some kind, utterly complete save one predictable but suprising, humble yet successful, well appointed human male.

Inevitably there is a photo taken on a beach, presumably so the observer can admire the person unclothed and ponder the hours they spent at the gym. But perhaps it is indicative of all the ways in which I am myself a petty and superficial person that I noticed this at all. I chose to not look at people who I found to be unattractive. I denied them the right of the internet age to be noticed, to register as a blip on the radar of another human’s consciousness.

People tell stories with pictures and all pictures tell stories. That the stories people to choose to tell as they search for connection are remarkably similar tells a story on a grander scale. That we are frightened of looking different. Afraid that the world will know we’re broken and unloveable, that we can barely stand another day of feeling so lonely. And then that we’re simply afraid, reaching for affirmation of our beauty and of our ability to perform conformity for wages of love as we march away from the darkness and into a light that shines so brightly we cannot see. This light might be salvation. Or it might just be what we see before the shockwave hits.