Isolated lives shine from dark landscapes.
After his father suffered a heart attack in 2014, journalist Sharlet (English and Creative Writing/Dartmouth Coll.; Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief, 2014, etc.) traveled from his home on the Vermont/New Hampshire border to his father’s home in Schenectady, usually at night. “It seemed easier,” he writes, “the steep twisting road more likely to belong to me alone; the radio, when I could find a station, less clogged with news and yet more alive with voices. Night shift voices” that revealed “other people’s nightmares and dreams, projected onto the black night-glass of the car windows.” When he stopped for gas, food, or just to rest, he took snapshots, which he posted on Instagram along with moving narratives about the people he met during those interludes. Travels to Los Angeles, Nairobi, Russia, and Ireland yielded additional portraits of vulnerable “night shift voices,” individuals “around whom the veil of the world is very thin.” One of the longer pieces focuses on 61-year-old Mary Mazur, a disabled woman whose closest companion is a potted plant, which she carries with her when she forays out of her motel room, near midnight, to buy a Thanksgiving turkey. A mother at 19, her three children were taken from her around 1982, when she herself entered the social services system. Now, lonely and wheelchair-bound, she exclaims, “I’m not like everybody else!” Neither is Jared Miller, a “sweet soul” who started abusing drugs in the military and died of an overdose six months after Sharlet met him; or Charley Keunang, a homeless man in his 40s, killed by a police officer who claimed he reached for a gun—a claim contradicted by body-cam footage. Charley immigrated to the U.S. from Cameroon hoping to be an actor, got involved in a robbery, served 14 years in federal prison, and ended up on skid row. Gentle, dignified, and respectful, Charley was “one black life that mattered, no more or less than any other.”
An intimate, poignant look at life at the margins of society.