Thursday, November 26, 2015

That One Time I Picked Up a Prostitute, and What It Taught Me About Poverty

The following story isn't as titillating as the headline would lead you to believe, but be warned: fairly adult content is contained within. Don't read ahead if you don't want to be offended.

It's also long. So you're gonna need 10 minutes or so. Just FYI.

Several years ago, before I met my wife, I lived in Granite City, Illinois, just a few minutes across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis. I worked at a company located downtown, and one of the great things about living that close to the bustling metropolis was the public transit system. The Missouri-based and Illinois-based transit companies worked together to insure that commuters had multiple options when getting from one side of the river to the other and back again.

So I would drive to East St. Louis, park at one of the MetroLink park-and-ride stations there, take the MetroLink light rail two stops into Missouri, get off the light rail, and the building where I worked was right there after ascending to street level. It was almost magical. 

The mere mention of East St. Louis sends shivers down the spine of many . . . well, let's say white people . . . that I know, because we've all heard stories in the St. Louis area about the violence that has taken place in that area, and the local police's penchant for turning a blind eye to certain kinds of atrocities committed. The truth is that if you're doing business in East St. Louis during business hours, or stick to certain high-traffic areas, you have very little to worry about. The MetroLink parking lot in East St. Louis is monitored around the clock, so every rider knew their vehicles were safe.

I would purchase a Metro pass for $40 a month, which would allow me unlimited rides on both states' transit systems, so I rarely carried cash on me when commuting. This little point will come up later.


It was one of the first great spring days of the year. The sun was shining, and a nice, brisk morning greeted me as I walked out of my apartment. Not cool, but not too warm either. So for the first time in a while, the windows were down and the radio was pumping louder than usual as I drove away.

As I approached the outskirts of East St. Louis, I came to a 4-way stop. I approached the intersection where I noticed a small black woman standing on the concrete divider between those driving straight and those turning right. She made eye contact with me, and as I pulled to the stop sign, she leaned forward and spoke to me through the window.

Now, a bit about this woman. She was dressed in a fairly nondescript pair of jeans and a plain sweatshirt with no design or graphics on it. She was a slight figure -- she looked as if she weighed maybe 85 pounds soaking wet, and that's if you counted the clothing she wore. Her face looked weathered, as though she was still young and spry, but she looked about 10-15 years older than she actually was. But nothing about her looked questionable, dangerous, or otherwise shifty, so when she leaned down to speak to me, I turned the radio down.

"Excuse me," she said, "could you give me a ride to the 'Mac-Donald's'?" She spoke in a relaxed, kind tone, but she also sounded kind of tired. "I'm hungry and I want to get some breakfast."

"Sure," I said, unlocking the passenger side door. "Hop in."

Before you say "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?" at your screen, I should explain that McDonald's was literally on my way to the MetroLink station, so I was already going that direction. I didn't think to question why she was asking for a ride to someplace that would have taken only 10 minutes to walk to from that point, but to me, it wasn't a big deal.

She got in, closed the door, and fastened her seat belt. I started to drive across the intersection when she reached her left hand over and placed it on my crotch. Almost as a instinctual reaction, I carefully grabbed her hand by the wrist and placed it back over on her own lap with a single word: "No."

The woman's demeanor changed a bit, and she tried to purr in my ear, "Ooohh, I bet it's so big. Please let me" . . . and then she gave me an offer for a very specific act . . . "for just 5 dollars."

Have you ever found yourself in a situation you've never been in, and you've never considered you might be in at some point in your life, yet when it happened, you had virtually no hesitation in how you reacted to it? That happened to me in this situation, but there were several things that went through my head prior to my response.

The primary force that guided my response wasn't my innate sense of right and wrong in terms of receiving sexual favors from a complete stranger, let alone paying for it. It was the training I'd received from my parents on how a woman should be treated.

Growing up with two older sisters in the house, my parents impressed upon me at an early age the importance of how a man should treat a woman. I also learned about the role of chivalry in the Middle Ages, and how those kinds of ideals could be implemented today. Certain things like always holding a car door open for your wife or girlfriend. Holding the door to an establishment open for a woman, no matter who she was or how far from the entrance she was when you could see she was approaching the door. And never, under any circumstances, do or say anything to deliberately embarrass or demean a woman, even in private. Don't be rude to women, basically. 

So with that training ingrained in my mind, when this woman asked me for . . . let's say a temporary employment opportunity . . . I thought the following things, in the following order.

1. Um . . . no.

2. You're really not attractive enough to be asking me for that. This is the frankly honest side of me. I hated that I thought like this, but if I'm going to be honest, I did.

3. Seriously, no.

4. This woman must have the worst manager in the world if she's offering to do that to me for only five dollars.

5. I'm so white, I just called this woman's pimp a "manager". Assuming she even has one. And if she does, he is WAY undercutting the competition.

6. I can't be late for work again. I'm so not kidding on this one. I had a problem with being late for work and had been written up a couple times for excessive tardiness. If I came in late again, I knew it would be a problem for me . . . regardless of the reason.

7. I don't have any money on me.

I turned to this woman, and with all sincerity, replied with what I felt would do the least amount of damage to her ego. 

"I don't have any money."

Immediately, the woman's disposition changed from sexual temptress (not a very good one, but whatever) to desperate and in need. 

"Oh, please, I'm so hungry! I haven't eaten anything for 2 days, and I'm hungry."

My heart crumbled in my chest. All this woman wanted was some food.

+  +  +

Living in poverty must be horrendously difficult. All my life, I've been privileged enough to live in a home with working heat, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, carpeted floors, and reliable transportation. My parents both worked for at least a few years when I was growing up so that my sisters and I could attend a private school, and we finished our high school years in public school. My father chose to work odd hours so that he could earn higher wages for his family, and we didn't really want for much of anything. We lived in a fairly new subdivision, and had great neighbors. 

And we never went hungry. Even though sometimes, when we were really young, it's possible my parents did so that my sisters and I didn't.

I can't imagine living on what I might call the "other side" of money, but it wasn't very long before I had this encounter with this woman that I had gotten a taste of it. Before I bought the car I was driving that morning, I lived without a car and used public transportation everywhere. I couldn't afford one, basically. I worked a decent job and could have saved up for one, but I didn't handle my finances as wisely as I should have, and there were times that I found myself short on cash and in need. 

One time, I was stranded without a ride and had to rely on the kindness of strangers to get a lift home, about 15 miles away from where I lived. That instance, though, was one of the few I had to weather, and riding public transportation was less convenient than having my own car. But the extra time it took to schedule out when I could leave and come back based solely on the bus and MetroLink schedules was pretty light worry when compared with what some people that lived even just a few blocks away had to deal with. 

I lived literally down the street from families who were living paycheck to paycheck, and on the tightest of terms. One misspending event, and they might not have enough to pay their electric bill, or their rent, or their car loan, or possibly even put food on the table. And that was Granite City. The municipalities outside of there -- Venice, Brooklyn, East St. Louis -- were poorer communities, and I imagine many families had it far worse off than I and the people who lived closest to me.

I've heard stories of people who were forced to shred any sense of dignity in order to provide for their kids, put 2 gallons of gas in their tanks, buy clothes, or even enjoy a meal. But until this day, I'd never had to deal with it so closely as the woman sitting in my passenger seat.

When she told me that she was hungry, every negative thought I could have possibly had about her dissolved because of the situation she was in. So what if her dignity was out the window? Pride doesn't matter when you're hungry and strung out. If anything, her willingness to degrade herself by offering to perform a sexual act on a complete stranger highlighted not only the bleakness of her plight, but also the willingness of people to turn their backs on those who are truly in need. Asking for money was panhandling, and many people in that area saw panhandlers nearly every day, myself included. So she was banking on the odds that some random guy might be more likely to give her 5 dollars in exchange for a sex act than he would be to give her 5 dollars out of the kindness of his heart.

That's what her experience with poverty had taught her. And that's also what I learned in that moment.


About 10 seconds after this initial exchange, as I was driving towards McDonalds, I suddenly remembered that I had about 3 dollars in change in the center console (I kept quarters in there in case I had to pay for parking at a meter in downtown St. Louis). I reached into the console and grabbed all the change I had, and handed it to her. "Here," I said, "take this. It's all I've got on me, and maybe it's enough to get yourself some food." Then I finished our ride to McDonald's, pulled into the parking lot, and let her out.

From the time I gave her the money, the look of despair never once left her face, even as she was getting out of my car.

Before you say, "Well, she was trying to scam you," I'm inclined to think that's not the case. Not the way she acted once I gave her the money. 

A day or two after I had been thinking about the encounter, I was faced with the stark reality that even if I'd had over $100 in cash on me at the time, no matter what I had done for this woman, it might not have been enough to help her in the long run. Her life wouldn't have suddenly turned around just because somebody gave her some money with no additional way to sustain herself. But hopefully, she saw the good in people. Maybe, she was able to look beyond my "I don't have any money" comment and realize that I still gave her some money (which I didn't have to do) because she had a need. I'd like to think that would have been enough for her to find a little hope in the kindness of others. Maybe she got some help from a local food pantry, shelter, or whatever other organization in her area could provide her with necessities. Maybe she was homeless, and was just looking for an excuse to not be outside for a while, and struck up a conversation with someone inside McDonald's who turned out to be a person that could offer her more help than I could in that moment. 

We didn't get into the specifics of her situation during that short car ride, but if we had, I would have felt compelled to find a way to help her so that she wouldn't have to resort to the type of measures she was willing to go to in order to feed herself, and possibly her family. That day, I would have given her all the money I'd had if I'd known it would have helped her out of that kind of life.

A total stranger, who wasn't really a prostitute, became one in an effort to break down the wall from her world into mine. What I experienced that day taught me about poverty in one of the most unorthodox ways possible. I'll never forget that lesson.

There Is No Box.
Zach

Thursday, November 12, 2015

2 Beautiful Beheadings in 15 Minutes: The Allure of “Game of Thrones”

The following article was originally published on Patheos entertainment blog The Rogue on July 10, 2013.

From Geek Goes Rogue TV Editor Zach Lorton, who still thought Dragonheart was a pretty decent film:
“All right, you primitive screwheads, listen up.”
There are certain television shows that I stumble upon as they premier, and I enjoy way more than anyone else — “FlashForward” was a prime example.  Then there are those series that I just can’t get into.  I saw a few episodes of “Lost”, but it didn’t take.  I saw the first episode of “Glee”, said “I get it,” yet immediately knew I would never have to watch another episode.  Then there are other series that I discover after everyone else.  For instance, I never saw the reboot of “Battlestar Galactica” until earlier this year (for the record, it was one of the best series ever broadcast in the history of television, science fiction or not).  And I actually saw Serenity before I ever watched a single episode of “Firefly”.
I didn’t have cable until a few years ago.  I don’t subscribe to HBO or Showtime.  I don’t have a subscription to Hulu Plus, Netflix, or Redbox.  And there aren’t many series that I’ll buy or rent on DVD unless I know how compelling they are.

So… “Game of Thrones”.
I’ve always loved the King Arthur legend and stories that take place during medieval times.  There’s a draw to the stories of nobility, courage, bravery and savagery, especially for men.  They’re compelling to the point of wistfulness. But television could never capture the feel of the time nearly as realistically as film did.  For me and my friends, the wonderful nerds who listened to music filled with references of the time, many of whom played tabletop RPGs and read countless fantasy novels, the only place we could find that kind of quality was in the movies.
Until recently, everything I’ve heard about “Game of Thrones” was incidental — the violence, the nudity, Peter Dinklage.  I haven’t heard much about its starkness, its beauty, its pacing, or its production values.





A few days ago, I watched the first episode of the series online, and wow, what a beautiful show.  Seriously, that’s the one word that kept coming up with every new scene: “Beautiful.”





Isn’t this what television is supposed to do — fill us with awe through spectacle?  Dazzle our eyes and our senses?  It’s a fact that we are drawn to that which is pleasing to the eye, and beauty holds our attention more than almost anything else.  Consider the visuals in otherwise lacking television and movies:
The world of Pandora in Avatar…
The world of The Grid in Tron: Legacy
…and its superior counterpart, “Tron: Uprising”.
And every once in a while, SyFy fails to disappoint.
And from what I can gather after having seen only one episode, I completely understand the draw.  One gets the sense there is more beyond the initial story, and things can only get more and more complicated as the series progresses.  But aside from the spectacle, one thing stands out as the high point of quality that all television must aspire to — human interaction.
Like “Battlestar Galactica”, this is a human drama.  The interplay among characters is filled with all things that make us human — rage, fear, lust, hope, loyalty, betrayal.  For this reason above all others, “Game of Thrones” succeeds in ways that lesser series do not.  We feel the struggles of the characters, their desires, insecurities, and needs, and even through we live in different times, even different worlds, we can see how the events might play out in our own lives.
Is this what makes television so magnetic?  Does great escapism reflect our realism, or does realism give our escapism the power it needs to draw us in?
One thing’s for sure — I’ll be watching more of “Game of Thrones”.  No spoilers, please.
I would love to hear from you readers out there — what television shows have drawn you in?  What about them hooked you?  Leave a comment, let me know.
There Is No Box.
Zach

2 of TV’s Sherlock Holmes Actors star in “Frankenstein”

The following article was originally published on Patheos entertainment blog The Rogue on July 8, 2013.


From Geek Goes Rogue TV Editor Zach Lorton, who loves fire:
“Lock the door.”
“And hope they don’t have blasters.”
Now that the rest of the world knows who Benedict Cumberbatch is, we can get back to the real reason the man exists — to play great characters.  The star of BBC’s outstandingly powerful “Sherlock”, Great Britain’s take on the Sherlock Holmes character, Cumberbatch has co-starred with Johnny Lee Miller, star of the CBS drama “Elementary”, USA’s desperate attempt to create a Shelock Holmes series that doesn’t look like a CSI knockoff, in a stage production of “Frankenstein”.
The play, adapted by Nick Dear and directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, premiered in 2011 at the National Theater in London, and a live broadcast is showing in encore performances in theaters throughout the UK and in select U.S. cities on October 31st, 2013.
The production is unique in that both leads played Victor Frankenstein and The Creature.  Which lead played which role depended on the production date.  Had I known about this production when it happened, I would have dragged my wife to The Tivoli in St. Louis to see the initial live broadcast.
The cinema broadcasts are relatively new for the National Theater, and their list of productions for this year include “Macbeth” starring Kenneth Branaugh, “Othello” starring Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear (“Skyfall”), and “Coriolanus” starring Tom Hiddleston (“Thor”, “The Avengers”).  Check their website at http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk to see if the cinema broadcasts will be coming to a theater in your area.

Regarding the television shows these two actor are involved in, “Elementary” has cast Rhys Ifans in the role of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother, and Sean Pertwee (Event Horizon, Equilibrium) in the role of Inspector Lestrade.  Looks like CBS is confident in the strides “Elementary” has made over the previous season and has invested in the canon.
Season 3 of “Sherlock” will premier on BBC in October 2013, with broadcasts on PBS’ “Masterpiece” program in 2014.  Also, director Guillermo del Toro has revealed that he is considering Cumberbatch to star in his upcoming adaptation of…  …care to take a guess?  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  The two are already planning on working together for del Toro’s next horror project Crimson Peak, and with Pacific Rim set to premier this weekend, we’ll see how much clout del Toro will have once the figures come in.  Will the crowds come out for it, or flock again to Despicable Me 2?  My hope is the former, as I would love to see more of Cumberbatch in pretty much anything.

There Is No Box.
Zach

“Under The Dome” Premiers to Good Ratings, Reviews

The following article was originally published on Patheos entertainment blog The Rogue on July 3, 2013.
From Geek Goes Rogue TV Editor Zach Lorton, as imagined in his head before he typed, but not before he hit the delete key about 20,000 times:
I’ll admit that several weeks ago, when I first saw the ads for CBS’ new series “Under The Dome,” I laughed a little bit.  The idea immediately brought a few questions to mind.  Apparently, according to users on IMDB.com, they were thinking the same thing…
Particularly, what came to mind was The Simpsons Movie (“Trappuccino”.)  And now, it appeared, we had a real life example of this idea.
I didn’t know at the time that it was based on a Stephen King story.  So when I was researching new shows premiering, I came across the details for “Under The Dome” and thought, Okay, I have to watch the pilot.
I wasn’t disappointed.  To a degree.
Apparently, plenty of others are thinking the same thing.  IndieWire has reported that the show has the feel of an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”  The New York Times stated that the writers’ lack of stereotype use helped bring this show into a more believable light (to which I somewhat disagree… my personal review will come later).  HitFix rated the premier episode a B while readers gave it a C+ rating, and said that the future of the series is “quite promising”.
In a premier event that drew 13 million viewers, CBS seems to have made a great investment in making sure “Under The Dome” succeeds on as many levels as possible.  With a team of producer Agatha Warren (“A Gifted Man”, “Prison Break”) and creator Brian K. Vaughan (“Lost”), there exists the potential for a stunning, gripping human drama that will focus on the darkness of human nature.  13 episodes have been ordered, and as long as the series remains consistent, I have no doubt that CBS will renew the series for future development.
Find out more details, watch video, and more at the show’s official website.

There Is No Box.
Zach

Warner Bros. Bringing 17 TV Shows to San Diego Comic Con

This article was originally published on Patheos entertainment blog The Rogue on July 3, 2013.
From Geek Goes Rogue TV Editor Zach Lorton, who is biding his time while rendering video:
One thing I’ve always wanted to check out was the International Comic-Con in San Diego.  Many consider the SDCC the Mecca of geek pop culture, mostly due to its close proximity to movie and television studios, so it’s not surprising to hear that Warner Bros. is charging into Comic-Con this July with 17 of its television shows.
Many of the studio’s successful shows are returning, including “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Following,” “Revolution,” and “The Vampire Diaries.”
Warner Bros. is also showcasing several of its new shows slated for fall premiers, airing the pilot episodes of some, including the new J.J. Abrams- produced, futuristic cop show “Almost Human” with Karl Urban, post-apocalyptic young person fodder “The 100,” and young-hot-people-with-special-powers drama “The Tomorrow People”.  Frankly, they sound worth checking out, but only time will tell what kind of staying power they have.
Many of the studio’s stars and producers will be attending panels and signing autographs, including Kevin Bacon, Rob Corddry, Maggie Q, Karl Urban & Michael Ealy, Eric Kripke, and Kevin Williamson.  Check out the San Diego Comic-Con’s unofficial blog for details on dates at www.sdccblog.com.

There Is No Box.
Zach

Rogue Archives: The Chemistry of "Breaking Bad"

The following was originally published on Patheos entertainment blog The Rogue on July 1, 2013.
I’m sitting in front of my television, where I have taken many a late-night mini-vacation while my wife sleeps.  Our tastes in entertainment are somewhat different.  For instance, she’s not a Star Trek fan, so she thought Star Trek Into Darkness was “really, really good”.  And we geeks understand why that’s frustrating.
Because I want to talk about “Breaking Bad.”  When was the last time the science of a show hooked you, even though it was merely a cursory part of the plot?  Chemistry, as Bryan Cranston’s Walter White explains in the series pilot, is the study of matter, but he prefers to see it as the study of change.
Foreshadowing much?
As I sit watching the show’s pilot for the 5th time, I can’t help but consider how similar this episode is to a superhero origin story.  There’s a vulnerability and ruthlessness about Walter that is just as compelling as the typical comic book character.  He’s a man who’s in so far over his head due to desperate circumstances that he can’t see past the immediacy of his decisions.  His transformation begins the moment he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, and he immediately looks for a way to provide for his wife, crippled son and yet-to-be-born daughter, after his departure from earth.  After seeing one of his former students (Aaron Paul) flee a meth house during a DEA raid, he blackmails the student into teaching him the business of selling and distributing crystal meth.  He pulls money out of savings to purchase an RV on a whim to create a mobile meth lab.  He assaults a kid who makes fun of his son in a clothing store.
The chemistry of Walter White never stalls throughout the series.  Every decision leads to an unintended or unexpected reaction.  After a few steps in, though, he seems to have control of everything… until he doesn’t.  There is no point in the series where you ever feel safe for him, his partner Jesse, his family, or anyone he comes in contact with.
Another scene in the pilot puts it succinctly: Water is in the mobile lab after completing his first batch of glass-grade meth, and Jesse is lauding him with praise, calling his product “art”.  “Actually,” Walt responds, “it’s just basic chemistry…”

I am already lamenting the day the final “Breaking Bad” episode airs.  The last episodes begin in just a few short weeks, and I’ve never anticipated a series’ return to the screen more, nor have I prematurely lamented its departure, hoping it will remain in limbo so as to give me a little glimmer of hope.  Maybe then, there would at least be a question as to what happens to Walter and his alter ego, Heisenberg, instead of forever closing the door on one of the most creatively insane series to be thrust into our homes.  I would almost prefer the ambiguity.
“Breaking Bad” is an exploration of the descent into the dark side of human nature — the things we do out of desperation, the secrets we carry to protect those we love, the unspeakable acts we’re willing to commit out of self-preservation, and the depths we can sink to when given the chance.  “Breaking Bad” isn’t just great television.  It’s great chemistry.
The final episodes of “Breaking Bad” air on AMC beginning Sunday, August 11th.

There Is No Box. Zach

Life is precious. All of life.

"I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live . . ."

I just heard about two people who died.

One, an elderly man, was unconscious for a week after an accident he'd had. The other, a young many in his 20s, overdosed on heroin. I didn't know either of them, but my heart broke upon hearing this news because their lives didn't have to end the way they did.

And yet I see and hear people defending Planned Parenthood because of some of the services they provide. You know, the ones OTHER than slaughtering children. Because that's what they do -- they slaughter children.

They. Kill. Children.
Do you understand how heinous that is?

If I were to tell you about even one good thing that Ted Bundy did in his life, or point out any positives about Adolf Hitler, you would think I was insane. However, this is the same kind of argument I hear from people who defend Planned Parenthood -- "Look at all the good they do for women!" And yet, over 300,000 children are aborted at PP clinics every single year, and nobody bats an eye.

Nobody's heart is broken over this.

You say it's a "woman's right to choose."
You say it's legal.
You say they offer other services.
You say it's to stop overpopulation.
You say the child might grow up in poverty.
You say the child might have a disease.
And NONE of those arguments matter. If you defend Planned Parenthood, you are essentially saying that you're totally fine with innocent children being murdered.

Sorry, that's what you're saying. You can't justify it any other way.

And I can't stay quiet about it any longer. Life is too short and our time is too valuable for us to get caught up in rhetoric that blinds people to the truth. I don't care if this angers people, and I don't care if anyone disagrees with me (though I know some will). IT DOESN'T MATTER who pays for the children to be killed -- the fact is that they are being killed, and you're defending it.

Those of you with children in your life -- whether your own or someone else's -- think of what your life would be like without them. Think of what might be if they were murdered because of abortion. Think of the joy you would never get to receive from being around them or watching them grow. Or the breakthroughs that child could never make in their respective fields because they were never given the chance to live. Or the people that child could never influence for good. Or the lives that will never come after they've grown because they will never be able to start families of their own.

I'm taking a stand because I'm sick to death of what people's opinions of me might be based on what they perceive to be "political" beliefs.

This isn't politics.
This is about life and death, plain and simple. And if you're not for the preservation of life, then you're for the destruction of it. There are only two sides when it comes to life and death; there's no comfortable middle ground.

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess. But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to go in and possess. I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20

There Is No Box.
Zach