Millennials, are you a Jen, a Kat, a Dirk, or a Thad? Because you’re not a Chandler, he’s a gen x-er
Jen’s tissue box is recycled brown cardboard, or at least it looks like it based on the small but visible recycled symbol, and was purchased at Whole Foods. Kat’s tissue box is well researched and is saving the rainforest; it features endangered species and is from Trader Joe’s. Dirk’s tissue box is slate blue with a commercial art deco angular design, like a gentrified apartment building, and he bought it at the Walgreens around the corner — at the corner of 18th and Market, not Happy and Healthy, and IRL, not through an app, how Dirk usually prefers to shop. Thad’s tissue box is not in season because he bought it at Aldi, and he likes to mix-it-up and buy a different color every other week of either the box or rectangular variety the store offers.
These four tissue boxes are found on the desks of four millennials, inside their cubicles, in a generic office, in a moderately sized city, in Kelly Karivalis’s debut novel “Adult Gummies.”
Karivalis is a creative writer who has produced collections of poetry in the past. She is currently based in Philadelphia and admins a popular Instagram meme page, appropriately titled “@businesscasualdreams” and recently changed from “@businesscasualmemes.”
Ultimately, the book’s main themes are the increasing anxieties of the modern world, specifically automation in the workplace and automation in personal lives. However, Karivalis evokes these themes through the book’s four main characters, whom Karivalis presents almost like user personas that a new tech company would create for a venture capitalist pitch.
“Like a prepackaged four-pack of giant tissue boxes, their cubicles share a touching corner. The cubicle walls are low enough so that they can see the tops of heads, hairlines and eyes. Thad reminds himself: today is an ordinary day, today is an ordinary day, to quell his waking fear of untimely death. While reaching for a second tissue, he overhears Jen’s phone conversation, to his left.”
Jen is the book’s main character, but not the protagonist, and is an over-achieving millennial determined to break the glass ceiling by making performances of productivity, a phrase Karivalis herself coins. “I saw the best hands of my generation going through the motions as the world watched, being completely aware they were being watched, performing their duty to perform productivity,” Karivalis writes, not necessarily about Jen as a character, in her poetic and omniscient forward to readers that appears before the book’s first chapter.
Obsessed with personal branding and outsourcing her love life to technology, Jen comes off as incredibly calculated but not quite cold. Karivalis creates a character that is both somehow humanized and demonized for the reader by her own aspirations. That is quite an accomplishment for the young author, and perhaps an accomplishment that could only itself be accomplished by a millennial female who runs an Instagram meme page dedicated to American office banality and recently witnessed the first female candidate of a major political party being defeated by a man who bragged of sexual assaults.
I don’t know if she would agree with the observation, but Karivalis is also ambitiously creative and remarkably successful in making the protagonist of the story not a character, but the IRL — “in real life” — connection between millennial co-workers Kat and Thad.
Kat is a stoner girl who is willing to go beyond the superficial, as seen by the research she did to fact-check the claim made by her tissue box — “20% of the revenue goes towards saving the rainforest” — and contrasts with Jen and her tissue box, with its calculatedly visible recycled symbol. But, Kat seems to live in a liminal space, resisting and acquiescing to an increasingly automated and technological world — she is a hybrid strain somewhere between an indica and a sativa.
In a similar way, “Thad is an imposter according to Thad,” writes Karivalis. He wears Old Navy shirts, khakis tailored for free at Uniqlo, and changes into his dress shoes at work, wearing New Balance sneakers on his commute, for an especially goofy look.
Karivalis’s writing also places Thad in a liminal space, but where Kat’s liminal space is like the midpoint of a rope used in a tug-a-war battle, Thad’s is a tightrope and he is walking on it. Thad, who is black, has his balancing skills tested in a particularly perturbing interaction that occurs during his morning commute late in the book.
Luckily, he is ignorantly saved from this interaction by his frenemy co-worker, Dirk, with the gentrified tissue box, and Dirk and Thad finish their commute together; “continuous inane dribble seeps from Dirk’s wet mouth onto the pavement and Thad blows his nose into the last tissue in his travel-pack, sick and tired of a lot of things.”
Dirk’s ignorance is the humanizing factor Karivalis graciously bestows upon him. His complacency extends from his ignorance and manifests itself in an apathy and lethargy that Dirk himself is both ignorant to and complacent with. Dirk has bought in to technology and is obsessed with it, just like Jen, whom Dirk shares a rivalry with, has bought into marketing buzzwords, like personal branding and SEO, and is obsessed with them. Both the rival characters are ignorant to the fact that they share a common enemy that will eventually lead to their unraveling.
Through all these characters, Karivalis champions humans. She champions art and human connections, and she champions feelings that have no words but are communicated through her poetic and symbolic writing. In one chapter, she creates a mantra of the phrase “Jeff in sales” which gives the reader a feeling of anxiety that is hard to explain and hard to shake.
In her poetic and omniscient forward to the book, Karivalis finishes with a short paragraph that makes both a blunt observation and a blunt prediction that both seem to be well researched on her behalf.
“My generation is criticized most by those in closer proximity to death,” the young author writes. “It’s not our fault we want to be artists. Art will be the last human vocation.”
I am the last person you want working your wedding, but you would never know.
After I drop off your pan-seared, airline chicken breast with roasted asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes, and topped with a shallot beurre blanc, along with your new husband’s braised short rib with creamy polenta, charred sweet peppers, and a spoonful of demi glace, dripping down the sides of the polenta to give the dish life, and ask if you need more white wine and if your husband needs more red, I’ll tell you both, “Congratulations, the ceremony was so beautiful,” — even though I never watch them. You’ll probably leave the head table to go acknowledge all of your 155 guests — leaving me to throw away 90 percent of your chicken dinner later that night — and I’ll meet my coworker Andrea outside and we’ll take a shot of tequila, which may or may not be the first one of the night, but it probably won’t be the last.
When your dad is giving his heartfelt speech about giving up his only daughter, about all the memories he has of you, and about how old he is and how old he feels — there are some speeches that are more heartfelt than others, but all bride’s father’s speeches contain an element of existential dread, just like many best-man’s speeches start with “Webster’s defines [insert marriage or love] as … but I like to think of it a little differently” — I am covertly snapchatting the whole thing with the caption, “155 people at this wedding 😮 0 box logos 😂 0 balenciagas 😳 nothing from the new yeezy season 🤔 asked the band if they knew how to play bodak yellow 🤗 they didn’t even know bardi b 🙄 smfh 😡” — yeah, that’s going on the story. After his speech, all 155 of you raise your glasses of champagne that I passed out 30 minutes prior. When I handed a glass to your dad I said, “For after your toast, which I know will be great. Congratulations, your daughter looks so beautiful, and so happy,” and he said, “Thanks for making this day so special.”
When you and your dad are sharing a dance to Landslide by Stevie Nicks — or some Tom Petty song, which is the recent trend — I am behind the wooden partition that blocks the unsightly kitchen doors from being visible, “hittin’ them folks”, ironically, mocking whatever slow song you have chosen for the entertainment of my coworkers. You’ll probably catch me dancing later and say, “Thanks for having fun with us! It’s been such a great night.” It costs around $300 for you to rent the dance floor from us, but the wedding planner always “throws it in” for free. My coworkers — excluding the wedding planner — set it up for $16 an hour. Also, that 22 percent service charge you see on your invoice? That is not a gratuity, that is a commission.
Maybe the DJ will play No Scrubs by TLC. That would be funny, at a wedding, I will think.
After me and Andrea’s second or third, or fourth shot — depending on the night — and while your whole party dances, there won’t be much for us to do besides polish glasses in the back and bring out the cake and coffee when the schedule says so. I will sit in the kitchen and make an off-kilter comment about one of your bridesmaids, again for the entertainment of my coworkers, and how I would “polish that ass” — instead of glass, get it?
We will cut the cake and bring it out. You guys will eat some, but there will be a lot left over. You will thank me again and I will go to the back of the kitchen and put a bunch of it in a to-go box to eat on my couch, alone, while watching The Office and getting stoned later that night. I will put it next to the two or three boxes in the walk-in fridge that I already have full of airline chicken breasts, beef short ribs, creamy polenta, garlic mashed potatoes, roasted asparagus, and charred sweet peppers — sauces on the side. The food has long been dead at this point and can’t be brought to life, even with the sauce, however, the sauces could expedite its decomposure, so — best on the side.
After you guys leave, we will clean up. We will pick up all the decorations and put them by the fireplace for the florists or decorators, or both, to pick up in the morning. I will probably put on “Relationship” by Young Thug on the PA system and sing, “I’m in a relationship with all my bitches, yeah,” while I spot-sweep.
Beautiful Thugger Girls will be on shuffle, naturally, and “Family Don’t Matter” might come on next. I will rap along with Thugga when he says, “Country Billie made a couple milli,” as I clock out and roughly multiply my hours by 16 in my head to figure out how much I made that night. Thugga also raps, “Wax that ass like a candle, hun,’” and I will wonder about the bridesmaid-with-the-butt’s date and how much his outfit cost as I go to the back storage room and exchange my $20 black dress shoes from Ross for my dirty, white Vans from the Vans outlet — no Balenciagas. Things won’t seem that funny anymore, and my mind will run to my long and lonely drive home.
I will get in my car with my duck-taped door, jerry-rigged hatch and bluetooth enabled stereo deck. My bluetooth will connect automatically and now maybe the shuffle is on “Daddy’s Birthday” and I will rap again with Thugga.
“Dropped out of school and bought myself a chain / I must’ve taught myself a million things / I’m out the trap I can sell anything / I wish I would allow myself to hear this old dream / I pray my daughter never ever experience no train / I told her Colgate, baby you gotta keep your teeth straight.”
I will think about my future on my windy, 45-minute commute alongside the Truckee river and underneath the Sierra stars, with home likely being somewhere at the end. The sauce might spill on one of the sharper corners.
My Iñupiaq name is Kavik, which means wolverine. I had originally declared to the class that my Iñupiaq name would be Muktuk — which I thought meant whale but literally translated to whale meat, similar to the difference between bull and beef — and all the students, mostly Iñupiat, laughed at me. The Iñupiat have 100 words for snow and nearly the same for ice, I don’t know how many words they have for white but I imagine it’s more than one — some Chinese agrarian societies have dialects with a dozen or more words for liquid water, I think I remember hearing somewhere. But I know I remember there was muktuk at the bottom of the soup the day of the fight, and maybe that’s why I just sat there, why I didn’t move a muscle, so I didn’t choke on the muktuk.
It was a small piece, about a half-inch. Half black and half white. Half dense muscle, used to propel 100 tons of organs towards 2 feet of sea ice and smash through it like a battering ram to access oxygen, and half greasy fat, part of a 2-foot layer of blubber used to keep warm in below-freezing water. The black part — the muscle — is chewy and tough — as you can imagine.
In Kotzebue, Alaska, they hold a muktuk eating contest on the 4th of July, as part of the Iñupiat village’s celebration of American independence — the competition is competitive — capitalists rejoice — because the muktuk is hard to swallow. It takes them 20 minutes to eat a square of both black and white meat that’s about three inches wide and maybe a centimeter thick. The Natives know to cut their square into smaller, more manageable pieces while the white people take large, indiscriminate bites. Those bites will turn into a chewy ball in their mouth, which they might chew the rest of their lives, and then pass down to their ancestors to chew, but will probably be spit into a trash can 20 minutes later.
But back to the day of the fight.
I was sitting on the edge of the table next to Richard, he was my best friend at the time, and I had already drank my cup of broth and popped my small chunk of muktuk in my mouth. I remember a television was at the front of Iñupiaq class that week, and there was soup, so it must have been a special occasion. Maybe the argument had been as superficial as a discrepancy in movie preference, but I was 10, so it’s hard to remember exactly.
We got pulled out of 5th grade once a week at June Nelson Elementary School for Iñupiaq class, usually for a quick lesson and then a few assignments in our workbook, which usually consisted of assigning the proper Iñupiaq name to different plants, animals and foods of Arctic Alaska. Aqpiq is salmonberry and tutu is caribou, and muktuk is whale meat. I wonder what June Nelson meant.
Richard and Peyton were both Iñupiat, but Richard looked it more. The Iñupiat have wide and pale faces with straight, black hair. They are usually stocky, and wrestling is the most competitive sport in the region. Peyton had gotten me into wrestling when I moved to Kotzebue in 3rd grade. We traveled to Shungnak and Selawik together to wrestle their elementary school teams. Me and Peyton were best friends during that time, when I had first arrived in Kotzebue. But, we were just on the wrestling team together, and it wasn’t wrestling season, the day of the fight.
Again, I don’t remember what the argument had been about, but I remember words stopped at, “At least my dad isn’t dead.”
The funny thing is I couldn’t tell you if Richard’s dad was dead or not and I guess that’s really not funny. But I knew Peyton’s dad was, and I knew Richard knew Peyton’s dad was. In a village of 3,000, everybody knows when somebody dies.
Peyton’s dad had crashed his airplane coming home in a whiteout a couple months after Peyton and I had became friends; Peyton was the first friend I made when my family moved to Kotzebue. We moved there in early March and the whiteout snowstorm was in late May, but time seemed slower then and there, in the world of May whiteouts. It was whaling season — the Iñupiat hunt bowhead whale from the edge of the melting spring sea ice — and Peyton’s dad had gone to one of the whaling villages to pick up muktuk, which filled the hull of his downed plane. Maybe the whiteout was responsible for the crash. Or, maybe, the weight of the muktuk pulled the plane towards the frozen ground below, the spirit of the deceased whale yearning to once again smash against the ice, to break through to the other side, to return its remains to their natural resting place. But, likely, it was a combination of the two.
I don’t remember if I cried or not at the funeral, but things between Peyton and I weren’t really the same after his dad died. I think there was a concerted effort to give him and his family space afterwards and I quickly developed and deepened other friendships.
When Peyton and I were still best friends, there were two weeks that I rode my bike to the post office everyday hoping my Gameboy Color had arrived. It was 2001 and Amazon didn’t have live tracking yet and the village of Kotzebue, Alaska doesn’t have home mail delivery. Also, my best friend’s house was close to the post office so it didn’t matter if my Gameboy wasn’t there, I’d go play Tekken 4 at Peyton’s. I was an Eddie Gordo button-masher.
Peyton’s house was prefabricated, like the vast majority of homes in Kotzebue were, and had probably arrived a few decades ago on a barge. Kotzebue was pretty much like a big trailer park. The prefabricated houses had either solid blue, green or yellow siding and white trim, and could literally be found anywhere in rural America — they especially reminded me of the houses out in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico then and especially remind me of the houses out in Sun Valley, Nevada now. The only exception was the blues, greens and yellows of the houses had been battered, breached and bleached by the 70-mile-per-hour winds, the white-out snows, the negative 40 degree temperatures, and the 24-hour summer sun that is found 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle on a peninsula protruding into the Bering Sea. And the houses were on stilts, because the permafrost disallowed for traditional foundations. Other than that, they were living relics of quintessential Americana.
From what I remember, Peyton’s house was two stories, and it was blue with white trim, not green or yellow. It was close to the post office, but it was also close to the Uutuku — which was a Chinese restaurant that also sold hamburgers, pizza and Pokemon cards, and was owned by Koreans. His house was also close to the school and to the village’s hotel, the Nullaġvik. It was also pretty close to the hospital’s employee housing where my family lived. It was pretty close to Richard’s house. It was a small village.
The aesthetic of the inside of Peyton’s house was eclectic hunting cabin. The walls were full of family photos and caribou antlers, and the bookcases. The tables were full of more family photos, porcelain figurines of caricatured Native Alaskans and porcelain figurines of caricatured Jesus’s with white faces. The kitchen cabinets probably contained a year’s supply of stove-top meals, seal oil and smoked salmon. Peyton and his brothers shared the first room upstairs. They had both Playstation and Nintendo gaming systems.
Richard’s house was white, with white trim, like an igloo if an igloo had siding and trim, and we used to play Dave Mirra’s Freestyle BMX on Playstation there. I don’t think the house was originally white, but I think it had arrived on a barge a few decades before Peyton’s, and its color had faded entirely. It might have even been blue, just like Peyton’s, at some point.
But Richard’s house was a single story and a single-wide, from what I remember. He lived there with his mom and his grandma and grandpa. I don’t know if these were his grandparents on his mom or his dad’s side, but I assume his mom’s. I never spoke a word to them, I don’t think, and they didn’t to me, I don’t think. I am not sure if they spoke English, but they probably did. I do know they were both alcoholics and began drinking early in the morning, because Richard and I would see it when I slept over. They kept a bottle next to one of the legs of the kitchen table they both sat at all day. I think they were trying to hide the bottle, not realizing that me and Richard weren’t sitting at the same table and that our 10-year-old frames actually made the things under the table more visible than those on top. Richard’s mom was an alcoholic too, but she was more functional. She and my mom were coworkers at the hospital.
Kotzebue was a damp village, meaning it didn’t have a liquor store. It also had no roads in or out, except the 30-mile ice road across the Kotzebue Sound to Noorvik — obviously only operational during the winter — and Noorvik was damp too. But, starting at the turn of the 21st century, you could order liquor (and Gameboy Colors) off the internet. The local favorite was R&R, short for Rich and Rare, Canadian Whiskey and you would frequently find little plastic pints emptied by some connoisseur on the ground throughout the village. My parents found a bottle under their bed when we moved into our furnished apartment. My sister’s friends, who were in 8th grade at the time, had a bottle one night as they went out “walking” — the favorite pastime of Kotzebue youth too old to be occupied by bikes, sleds and video games. My sister didn’t drink any, according to her.
Before my family left Kotzebue and I re-joined my Albuquerque friends from 2nd grade in 5th grade at Bandelier Elementary School, Richard had been planning a party for when his mom was going to be out of town. He asked me if I was going to drink and I said I would have “a” beer, but we were gone before the party.
Richard definitely had more of an edge to him than Petyon. We were interested in girls already, and even found a porno at a mutual friend’s house — which we watched, me being too embarrassed to voice my utter confusion as to everything — and I mean everything not just the faulty plot lines — that was happening in the film.
I had asked Teresa, one of the few white girls in the village and a fellow “gifted” program student, via MSN Instant Messenger to be my girlfriend and she said yes. Then, Teresa broke up with me about two weeks later via MSN Instant Messenger, citing that her parents said she was too young to have a boyfriend. I didn’t really care though because I was interested in Karina, an Iñupiat girl.
Karina had an edge to her — so it seemed — and I thought I needed one to get to her, and so my friendship with Richard deepened. My family lived in Kotzebue for about three years, and for about the first year and a half, I was bullied by kids like Richard, and for about the second year and a half, I bullied, with Richard, and I never once held Karina’s hand, or kissed her, or asked her to be my girlfriend on MSN Instant Messenger.
Richard taught me how to talk and dress like an Iñupiat kid, through specifics and osmosis, which stopped me from getting singled out as “the white kid,” even though I had never felt white at Bandelier Elementary School. He used to say to me sometimes, “you can suck my toe all the way to New Mexico,” which for some reason would get me riled up, and he would sometimes make fun of my Hispanic and Jewish heritage — neither of which he understood. He would try and fight me sometimes, and I would always be too scared, so I would say, “I don’t want to throw punches, let’s wrestle,” and I would always win. When Peyton and I would get matched up at wrestling practice, he would always kick my ass.
I don’t remember who won the fist fight between Peyton and Richard, and I don’t think it lasted long enough for a winner to be crowned. I remember what I remember about most fights I witnessed as a child: two little boys with tears streaming down their leaned-back red faces hurling as many tiny fists as they can at a target they are imagining behind their closed eyes. I remember hearing what Richard said, and I remember seeing Peyton’s tears swell and his first punch flying. I remember sitting there and I remember feeling like a loser as two kids with zero dads propelled their tiny battering rams toward each other’s wide faces. My dad said I did the right thing by not getting involved. My family left Kotzebue that following summer.
The Facebook Age
Peyton and I aren’t friends on Facebook, but Richard found me a few years back. He sent me a message asking if I remember him, reminding me by saying he used to keep me from getting beaten up. He didn’t have to tell me that, I remembered — both him and the fact.
He told me he lives in Anchorage now but wants to move his family down to Seattle — I guess he’s a dad himself now — giving the crime in Anchorage as the reason. I told him I would like to go back to Kotzebue and see how everything has changed. He said he hadn’t been in 10 years but he heard it had changed a lot. He said he heard lots of new people had moved to town.
“They trynna take over the town” and make it into “gang territory,” he wrote. He said to let him know when I’m “gonna go up north” and that he would come with me, so we could “super man sum shit.” I felt honored that Richard would consider enlisting me to help recover his fortress of solitude.
The Beginning and the Beginning of the End
We originally moved to Alaska because my mom had just graduated nursing school saddled with a substantial amount of student debt. Medical professionals received a premium wage in the small villages of Arctic Alaska. We were broke in Albuquerque — a city ruled by what would be a coastal city’s middle class — but we were rich in Kotzebue — a town ruled by elders, the federal government, and a famous dog sled racer.
In 2015, President Obama brought a procession of over 20 blacked-out secret service SUVs to Kotzebue to drive on the two paved roads. He toured the shoreline and met with local legend Jon Baker, a famous dog sled racer and Alaska native who won the Iditarod in 2011, in order to address climate change. But he didn’t stay at the Nullaġvik and likely slept on the flight back to Anchorage. When my family left in 2002, the village only had one paved road and probably only two cars, and Jon Baker was married to Tammy Baker, who was my mom’s best friend. I have a signed poster from Jon Baker with his slogan, “I dream. I try. I win.”
Every year-round resident of Alaska receives a dividend from the profits generated by the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System after the resident has resided in the state for two consecutive years. The natives would usually purchase new ATVs or snowmachines, or buy plane tickets to Anchorage to watch movies in a theater. They usually spent their money on things that consumed more fossil fuels, feeding the complex. My family received our first and only dividend right before we left and I assume it went towards our moving expenses, which included plane tickets. I remember we watched the first installments of both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series in a movie theater in Anchorage on our way home to New Mexico.
Compared to Kotzebue, climate change places the nearby whaling villages in a much more precarious position; Point Hope — a village notorious for its suicide rates and where Peyton’s dad might have been returning from when his plane crashed — has already been almost completely swallowed by the surrounding Bering and Chukchi Seas. My parents went back to Kotzebue for a year in 2010 and my mom told me Peyton’s mom had died from cancer, for which the Iñupiat are at extreme risk; it is hard to maintain their traditional diet and their bodies are maladapted to processed foods, like stove-top meals, while their traditional diet, including muktuk, smoked salmon and seal oil, contains a disproportionate amount of artificial contaminants, especially mercury.
“Get the lil’ town clean, back the way we left,” Richard wrote via Facebook Messenger about going back up to Kotzebue with me. “I’m down brutha,” I replied.
After I sent that message to Richard, I thought about how I, Kavik, formerly Muktuk, and all the other explorers of European descent — including Barack Obama and Otto Von Kotzebue — had left the village of Kikiktagruk, Alaska. I thought about Peyton, and I thought about everything my parents have taught me. I thought about Richard, and I thought about the thick skull of the bowhead whale, battering the ice, breaching the surface, trying to breath — and then bleached by the sun when all the muktuk had been carved off.
“I love this job so much, it never feels like work for me. When I feel a purpose, it feels like I am being rewarded,” Reno Police Officer Wesley Leedy told me at the beginning of our ride-along the night of Friday, November, 17, 2017.
The first call we responded to that night was a fight at the Silver Legacy.
Two years ago, in June 2015, Leedy responded to an assault with a deadly weapon call at the Silver Legacy. Leedy and his colleagues ended up firing 14 rounds at that suspect, who had pulled his gun on officers in the parking garage when confronted, striking him 11 times and severely injuring him. The Washoe County District Attorney’s Office found the shooting to be justified.
I ask Leedy if he thinks about the shooting when he is called back to the Silver Legacy, and he says he does.
“They’re not necessarily negative, just historical,” Leedy said about his thoughts.
Leedy is not that much older than I, but seems much more mature. He is 30 and was 27, one year older than I am now, at the time of that shooting. He turned 28 about a week later.
As a 26-year-old university student studying journalism, I think an assumption is generally made that I am a liberal, and that assumption is mostly correct. And liberals are generally assumed to be on one side of the current officer-involved shooting and police brutality debate, which has racial connotations. As a hip-hop fan, acts like Run the Jewels and Vic Mensa are some of my favorites, and both are outspoken when it comes to police brutality and officer-involved shootings, specifically involving black men.
Run the Jewels has an animated music video for their song “Early.” In that video, rapper Killer Mike, one half of Run the Jewels, raps a fictionalized story of police shooting a young black child. The verse gave me chills the first time I heard it. I thought of young Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed by Cleveland police, and I balled up my fists and clenched my jaw.
Vic Mensa’s “16 Shots” makes an explicit reference a real life police-involved shooting. Vic Mensa, a Chicago native, centers the song around the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times, resulting in his death, by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. In a dashcam video from that shooting, you can see puffs of smoke rising from McDonald’s body as he lies in the middle of the street and Van Dyke continues to fire shots.
Vic Mensa’s music video for the song, that opens and closes with footage from that dashcam video, has Mensa, the son of a Ghanese father and a white mother, brutalized himself by the police, and the brutalization almost becomes somewhat of an interpretive dance, signifying the chaos and distortion that the black community has been subjected to by police. Mensa is beat, tased and shot multiple times by police portrayed by actors in the video, but continues to “RESIST,” which is the word emblemized in all caps on his sweatshirt in the video. Mensa closes his last full verse on the song with an explicit threat.
“This for Laquan on sight, when you see Van Dyke / Tell him I don’t bring a knife to a gunfight,” raps Mensa and I always rap along.
10:22 p.m. Friday, November 17, 2017
On November 17, when Officer Leedy and I arrive at the Silver Legacy, security already had the situation under control and Leedy simply made an arrest for battery. However, after he put the suspect into the patty wagon, he quickly turns to me and says, “We gotta go.” We hop in his police cruiser and he takes a right on Virginia before flying down the busy street in downtown Reno, exceeding 50 miles per hour as we pass underneath the iconic and sparkling “Biggest Little City” sign. Another officer is in a fight.
If there is a cop culture, this is the most immediately recognizable aspect, or at least this is it for the Reno Police Department. The officer’s have each other’s backs.
I asked Leedy, who is a training officer as well, at the very beginning of the night if there is a “cop culture” and if he trains to it.
“There’s a culture, but I don’t have to talk about it or train to it, they’ll get it anyway,” he said.
Dr. Dan Dugan is a psychologist who is contracted by the multiple police agencies in Washoe County, including the Reno Police Department, to conduct their pre-employment psychological screenings as well as their “fitness-of-duty evaluations.” All officers must be screened by a psychologist before being admitted to the police academy. Officers who have been involved in a shooting, like Leedy, must complete a “fitness-of-duty evaluation” before returning to work. Dugan has a lot of intimate conversations with police officers to say the least. He says that the officers coming in for their pre-employment screenings are psychologically diverse and that there is no “police type.”
He says that if an officer comes into a pre-employment screening and has a “cause” as to why they want to become an officer, that is a red-flag for Dugan. He looks specifically for revenge, like if an applicant’s parent had been killed by drug dealers and they mention that as one of the reasons they want to become an officer.
Leedy told me he wanted to become a cop because he has always been drawn to the first responder role and that he wants to help. “I thrive in turning chaos into order,” he said.
While Dugan doesn’t think there is a “police type,” he does believes there is a “cop culture.”
“Anytime you put people together for a long period of time, there’s a culture,” Dugan said.
He says that the 10 year veterans on the force tend to be a bit narrower in regards to their psychological range, meaning that the officer’s mentalities are both more stable and homogenous after many years on the force.
Dugan does admit that the demographic makeup of Reno makes it easier for police to develop an “us versus them” mentality but that the department is trying to address those issues.
Before Leedy and I went to the Silver Legacy that night of the ride-along, a call came over the radio for a welfare check. A man’s sister had called 911 and told dispatch her brother was having a PTSD episode and out on the street, and that he might be confrontational.
Leedy turns to me, likely smelling my liberal millennial-ness with his detective’s nose — he is moving from patrol to an undercover narcotics unit in January — and asks, “You see, like what would you do in that situation as an officer?”
I respond with what can be paraphrased here for the sake of my millennial motif as, “IDK TBH”– or, “I don’t know, to be honest.”
The man has not committed a crime yet and so no arrest can be made, and confronting him without the ability to make an arrest could endanger him and the officer. But, if police don’t respond at all, the woman who called, who is a member of the community that police have vowed to protect and serve, might feel neglected, and this could evolve into negligence on behalf of the police if the man were to hurt himself or others. Anyway, another officer responds and at 10:22 p.m. we are pulling up outside the Silver Legacy, unaware that at 11:01 we will be racing down Virginia responding more-or-less to that original call.
11:01 p.m. Friday, November 17, 2017
The dispatch says the location of the officer-involved fight is the corner of California and Humboldt, but Leedy passes California and continues to speed down Virginia. Another officer sees Leedy and begins to follow him. We go down Virginia all the way to W. Pueblo Street where Leedy takes a right and the other officer pulls beside him.
“Where the hell are they at?” asks the other officer.
“I don’t know,” says Leedy. “I thought they were on Virginia.”
We then continue down W. Pueblo to Plumas and head north towards California. Once we get to Plumas and California, it becomes obvious that the fight was at the corner of California and Arlington — about 20 squad cars are in or around the intersection, lights on.
As we get out of the cruiser, I see a few officers who have a man on the ground in the middle of the crosswalk on the west side of Arlington that runs north and south across California. The man yells, “Whew! That was a good fight, the first few of you guys were kind of pussy, but then when the rest of you got here — that was a good fight!”
The man was shirtless on the below-freezing night and he was bald, heavy-set, with a big red beard. This matched the description given to us from that first welfare check call.
The original responding officer is talking to others as we approach the scene and I overhear him. He says he approached the man and asked if he needed help and that his sister was concerned about him. At that point the man charged him and the officer tried to keep a distance while he radioed for backup before he was forced to engage the man. I ask Leedy about that officer — if he knows him, how long he has been on the force — and Leedy tells me he’s new to the force but that he’s a combat veteran, so he’s pretty good for a new guy. Leedy is also a combat veteran and served as a medevac pilot in the National Guard in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. As the officers continue to check-in with each other and banter, the officer that followed us says he didn’t know where he was going but he saw Leedy and figured Leedy knew where he was going, so he followed.
Dr. Dan Dugan, the police psychologist, says that cops with military backgrounds — and, according to Leedy, there are a lot of them — tend to be both better leaders and better de-escalators.
“They’re different from people with no military background because they’ve already seen a lot and some of them have seen a lot worse than they’re gonna see on the city streets in Reno,” Dugan said. “I think their battle experience makes them more of a calming force to resolve a situation.”
Dugan says, however, that he would not characterize them as the “guys who want to dive in and respond first.” He recounts an officer who had been involved in three shootings in their three years on the force, and I ask him if that is a red flag.
“It’s interesting to me,” Dugan said. “The guys who have been involved in multiple shootings hear something and they think, ‘There’s a bad situation, I want to go help,’ and they’re like the first ones there. They’re not wanting to be in a dangerous situation, but they’re wanting to be involved, to help out, they’re a little more gung-ho about diving in.”
I then ask if these officers are just more passionate about their job and Dugan says that is a good way to put it.
“They’re passionate about their partners and everybody’s safety, they just believe, ‘I can help this thing out, I can put this thing to rest,’” Dugan said.
The night of the ride-along, the officers continue to rehash the fight as a group. There is banter and joking about none of them getting to use their Tasers and there is serious conversations about Governor Brian Sandoval’s cuts to mental health funding. The officers joke like this throughout the night on multiple calls. I didn’t see what I would consider an excessive use of force the whole night but the fact that the officers always joke about wanting to have been provoked or required to use just a little more force makes me uncomfortable at points. However, it seems like a coping mechanism for the stress that must go into making those exact decisions.
“There’s 1000s of policies,” Leedy told me that night. “We take legal action — within seconds — where judges, lawyers, take years.”
11:13 p.m. Friday, November, 17, 2017
At 11:13 p.m., we are responding to a welfare check. A man called and reported unwanted house guests from a home which had had several recent calls for welfare checks. The assumption is made that there is actually no unwanted house guests and that the man may be schizophrenic.
When Leedy and I arrive, Officer Steve Wozniak, who is Leedy’s beat partner, is already inside the house. We go in and find a frail man, surrounded by empty beer cans and one empty liquor bottle, sitting on his couch and talking to Wozniak. There is nobody else in the house besides the man, Leedy, Wozniak, the ride-along that happened to be accompanying Wozniak for the night, and myself.
The officers ask the man if he has eaten recently and he says he hasn’t eaten in 48 hours probably, which he then contradicts later. Leedy checks the man’s pantry and cupboards and sees that the man has food. Wozniak says, “You want Officer Leedy to make you a sandwich?” — somewhat sincere, somewhat giving Leedy a hard time. The officers see a bunch of prescription pill bottles and the man says that those are his wife’s, who is his caretaker but is currently in the hospital after back surgery, according to the man. They check the bottles and find his wife’s name on most of them but some with the man’s name. The officers run through their mental catalogues of prescription medications and postulate with each other what each medication might be used for. The man says his brother-in-law is coming to take him grocery shopping in the morning and the officers reassure the man that nobody is in his house before leaving.
In the street out front of the house, Wozniak asks about the fight because he was one of the few units that did not respond. He asks Leedy if he got to use his Taser and they both laugh. It seems like Wozniak is giving Leedy a hard time about something so, when we get back in the car, I ask about the Taser joke and Leedy tells me to Google, “Reno police officer tases girl.” Apparently there was a cell phone video that went viral of Leedy tasing a girl in downtown Reno.
In that video, Leedy and fellow officers are breaking up a fight between two men on Virginia Street in downtown Reno. Leedy’s colleague wrestles one of them to the ground. At that point, a female, Lena Conway, holding a collapsible baton, approaches that colleague. Leedy can be heard giving commands to drop the weapon in a separate video of the same incident and she is either unaware that he is speaking to her or ignoring him. From the video, she does not seem to be aggressive, but her back is turned to Leedy. He fires his Taser and she falls backward without bracing herself, seeming to be unconscious.
The video went viral not because of any sort of controversy really, but more because of how the girl falls after being tased, according to Leedy and seeming to be corroborated by the comments on the YouTube videos. Leedy said that she did hire a lawyer and made a publicized announcement, saying she was going to sue the department and implying racial motivations; Conway is Native American. That lawsuit was never officially pursued, said Leedy.
I am impressed at Leedy’s willingness to disclose this information. He knows that I am a journalist who is writing a story about him and who was obviously unaware of this video, and he has no hesitation towards making me aware.
Midnight, Saturday, November 18, 2017
At midnight, we are responding to a call at the men’s homeless shelter. There is a man who is belligerent, throwing chairs and fighting others, according to volunteers at the shelter. When we arrive, he is already on the ground, being held there by an elderly shelter volunteer, who is likely homeless himself, and two other officers. But, when Leedy gets there, he takes the lead.
They first ask the volunteer to get off of the suspect and it is then apparent that the volunteer was remaining on the man not out of want or obligation but more because he was physically unable to stand up because of bad knees. The suspect gets cuffed but continues to be defiant. Leedy gets debriefed by another shelter attendant who says the suspect was being belligerent and was told to leave and refused. Because he continues to be defiant, officers then bind the suspect’s legs as well, so he is more-or-less hogtied. The other homeless in the shelter seem calm and aloof. The suspect is going to be charged with trespassing and battery. He calls Leedy “a faggot” and tells him he “doesn’t owe him any respect,” as he is lifted out of the building.
Outside, the group of officers assembled at the scene banter about what might be a new and inexperienced dispatch person based on weird communications throughout the night. Sandoval’s mental health cuts are again brought up. Leedy asks the suspect, who is now on the ground in the parking lot with what seems like a mixture of saliva and throw up dripping from his mouth and steaming on the asphalt, if he is still doing OK.
“What people don’t see is the 10 times you sent them to the hospital to get back on their meds, they see the one time we get in a fight with them,” said Officer Feathers, who asked that his first name not be used, referring to both homeless persons and the mentally unstable.
Boyd was homeless and had been camping in the foothills east of the city. A nearby resident called to report the illegal camping. Boyd was a known schizophrenic and was armed with two pocket knives, which he initially confronted police officers with. After a long standoff, police convinced Boyd to come down from his position, perched on some rocks above the officers. As he begins to step towards police, they throw a flash grenade. That disorients Boyd who rebrandishes the pocket knives he had since put away. The K-9 unit dog and handler are close to Boyd at this point and that is the reason why Officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez claim to have shot, according to testimony. After the initial shots strike Boyd, Boyd is shot with a bean bag shotgun three times while on the ground and officers scream, “Drop the knife!” — then the police dog is sent on him, to which he is unresponsive.
I was working at Standard Diner at the time, which is on Central Avenue in Downtown Albuquerque. The protest that followed Boyd’s shooting processioned right past the big windows of the diner as I worked my lunch shift. I remember getting off, changing clothes, and heading out into the street to express my anger at the Albuquerque Police Department.
The next night, some friends and I were eating at The Frontier restaurant, an iconic Albuquerque restaurant across Central Avenue from the University of New Mexico and one of the focal points for the protests that had consumed the street the day and night before. Outside the restaurant, there will still some lingering protesters. Two of them were confronting a police officer who was just on his beat, not making an arrest or stopping any civilians. One of them had their camera phone out and was filming the interaction. I overheard the officer repeatedly request that the protester please stop filming him. And I overheard that protester repeatedly assert that he had the right to film the officer. I remember thinking, a day after I myself was a part of that very protest, “I should go start filming that protester and see how he likes having a camera in his face. I have the right.” Looking back on that moment, I regret not standing up for the officer.
I returned to the homeless shelter in Reno a few weeks after the ride-along to collect photos for this story since ride-alongs are not allowed to record or photograph anything during the experience. While I was taking photos of the facade of the building, police cruisers pull up and approach a suspect who had been breaking into cars in the parking lot, according to volunteers. The suspect won’t take his hands out of his pockets and is tackled and held down by officers — the suspect is not cooperative. Eventually, he is cuffed and put into the back of a squad car. I ask volunteers at the shelter how often cops are called out there in a single day and they tell me “at least 10 times.” I think about the complaints the officers had about Governor Sandoval’s mental health cuts.
12:45 a.m. Saturday, November 18, 2017
At 12:45 a.m. the night of the ride-along, we are responding to a noise complaint at an apartment building in North Reno. It turns out to not be a party as I had expected, but just a few guys listening to music too loud. The officers ask them to turn it off and how many people are inside. The tenant of the apartment says that there’s four people inside but that one is asleep. I ask Leedy what he thinks about those kind of calls and if he agrees that it at least seems like a waste of police time and resource; couldn’t the neighbor who complained just knock on the door and ask them to turn down the music? He agrees.
I think about young Cameron a lot, because of his nuanced address in 2016, but also because, to me, he really represents the finality of an officer-made decision to shoot somebody. Cameron will spend the rest of his life without a father.
1:33 a.m. Saturday, November 18, 2017
At 1:33 a.m. we are headed north on on Highway 395 and we are driving fast. There was a high speed pursuit involving Washoe County Sheriff Department officers and now the suspect is being held at gunpoint. We turn around though before getting to the scene because so many officers had already responded. Again, the camaraderie is the most definable aspect of “cop culture.”
However, Arthur Richardson, the man who was shot by Leedy and his colleagues in 2015 but survived the incident and is now serving the tailend of his sentence at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, sees “cop culture” a little differently. At the time of the 2015 shooting, Richardson was already a convicted felon, and, as a half-white, half-black man, says he has had many interactions with police.
“Yes, it’s a culture, and with young black men especially,” he said. “When I was 15-years-old I got tackled by a police officer for no reason, for having a manilla envelope.”
He said he was followed by Sheriff Kirkland, possibly referring to ex-Washoe County Sheriff Richard Kirkland, who he says was a detective at the time. He said Kirkland witnessed him hitting a girl with a manilla envelope in the shoulder in a flirtatious manner. Then Kirkland followed him and his friends for a few blocks before commissioning another officer to approach the group.
“This dude trips me and literally smashes my face into the ground for no reason,” Richardson said. “This was my first bad, personal interaction with a police officer, this is minus all the things I saw when I was younger.”
Being half-white, Richardson says he is hesitant to pull the “black card” and that he is always the one to “stick up for fairness.”
However, he thinks there is a negative “cop culture” and that it is systemic. He brings up pitbulls and how they all have a certain reputation, but stops short of making a direct comparison between the dog breed and police.
“I am not using a simile or anything like that, like police are pitbulls, but I think it is a culture,” he said. “To them, that’s what they look at, we’re looked at as, ‘OK, this guy’s automatically a threat, he looks like a, you know, he’s got a bald head, he looks like a little thug, he might have some baggy pants.’ Whatever they’re thinking, it has to be a systemic thing because its constant, and if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be constant. And for poor people in poor neighborhoods, especially young black men, you know, this happens.”
He then talks about an incident in Sparks involving a white man. According to Richardson, police had been called on this man because some family members had reported he had child pornography on his computer. The man had locked himself in a room and told police, ‘If you come in here, I’m killing you,’ according to Richardson. But, the man was never shot, Richardson said.
“This is a white dude with an assault rifle that has child porn on his laptop, he doesn’t even get shot,” he said.
He then contrasts that with his own shooting, where officers struck him with what he says was 13 bullets, contrasting with the amount of bullets that Leedy says he was told struck Richardson in an official debriefing, which is 11.
“I have all the bullets to prove it,” Richardson said.
Richardson specifically mentions Leedy, not by name, but as the “officer with the Taser,” as being excessive. Leedy switched between his Taser and his gun when Richardson pulled out his gun in June 2015. Richardson doesn’t think this was necessary in that the two other officers accompanying Leedy already had guns drawn. Richardson claims to have not had a bullet in the chamber, something that would have been impossible for officers to have known. He says he was “falling to the ground,” and that the officers continued to shoot him in the side.
I received a copy of the Silver Legacy parking garage security camera footage of the shooting from Sparks Police Department, who used the footage as part of their investigation into the incident. It shows Richardson pulling his gun and it shows Leedy quickly switching between weapons before Richardson begins to fall. There are no visible puffs of smoke arising from Richardson’s body after he begins to fall, unlike the Laquan McDonald video. The video has no sound so I cannot say for certain whether Richardson was shot after beginning to fall.
Richardson does say that the “officer with the Taser” showed the most remorse during the trial, and that he was taken aback by the lack of remorse shown by the other two officers.
Dr. Dan Dugan, in all his intimate interactions with police, says he hasn’t seen any with ill-intent.
“I haven’t seen any bad guys in here,” Dugan said. “In Northern Nevada, I haven’t seen it.”
1:55 a.m. Saturday, November 18, 2017
With no calls coming in, we return to Leedy’s beat, which is north of downtown and west of the 395. We drive around neighborhoods for awhile. We patrol around the Motel 6 on Stardust Street before coming across Officer Wozniak making a traffic stop in the adjacent parking lot. He suspects the man he pulled over is intoxicated because he made a right turn with the left turn signal on. The man has a lady in the car and, when he eventually is asked to get out of the car, he gets out with his belt undone and his pants half down. The man is obviously intoxicated. He says he’s from Chico, California and that he is in town to get married — “Obviously not to her,” the man says, referring to the woman in the car who is likely a prostitute. The man is not really being confrontational but he is not cooperating either. He keeps talking about how he has been repeatedly assaulted by the police in Chico. When Wozniak starts to get stern with him, frustrated by his level of cooperation, the man says, “I am being cooperative,” and Wozniak responds, “Yeah, you are being drunk cooperative.”
Leedy is talking to the woman, asking her where she lives and what she does for work — knowing what she likely does for work. The woman says she is staying at the Motel 6 and that she is on disability. Leedy asks for her room number and she responds quickly, and Leedy doesn’t pressure her further — I think he was trying to corroborate that she actually had a room there and would have a safe place, warm and off the street, to go to; the man was going to be arrested and taken to county jail.
During this whole interaction, I, the snowflake journalist, am shivering while standing outside in my snowboard jacket. The suspect is in just a shirt and seems unaffected by the cold; he is drunk cooperative and perhaps drunk warm. But the officers also seem completely unaffected, which I am impressed by, and I ask Leedy what their uniforms are made of when we get back in the car.
The department has a special team for DWI arrests that usually takes the suspect to jail to be booked and processed. However, they were busy, so Leedy, Wozniak, Wozniak’s ride-along, and I took the suspect to the county jail. The suspect kept glaring at me while be processed. One of the county jail officers noticed the way the suspect was looking at me and said, “He doesn’t like you.”
The only instance of racism I see all night comes from this suspect. While in a holding cell, he repeatedly asks officers if he can use the bathroom — he had probably drank a lot of alcohol that night and needed to pee. After having multiple pleas ignored by Leedy and Wozniak while they fill out a warrant to conduct a blood test on him — he had refused a breathalyzer — the suspect says, “Can I please take a piss, like a white man?” Wozniak looks at Leedy and says under his breath, “Did he just ask if he can take a piss like a white man?” and laughs, but does not let him out of the holding cell. Leedy and Wozniak are both white, and Wozniak’s ride-along is white. The suspect is white, although the woman he was with when he was arrested was black. I am Hispanic, but generally think of myself as white-passing.
The way he said “like a white man” made it seem as if, because he was a white man, he thought he was more entitled to “take a piss” than suspects of other races. “Maybe this man has picked up on the fact that I am not totally white and not totally gentile, and that is why he keeps glaring at me,” I started to think.
3 a.m. Saturday, November 18, 2017
Because the officers had to receive a warrant for the blood test, we were at the county jail for quite awhile. We left around 3 a.m. and Leedy took me back to the station to be dropped off at my car.
Usually the ride-alongs last till 5 a.m. but Leedy and Wozniak had paperwork to do and I had to leave for work at 5:30 a.m. I thanked Leedy for encouraging me to do the ride-along and inviting me to come with him specifically, and was glad to get home at 3:30 a.m. and have an opportunity to maybe get a few hours of sleep.
“I always encourage people to do ride-alongs, I don’t care if you hate the police or love the police,” Leedy had told me a few weeks prior, when we first met.
Leedy says that during a shift if somebody is being rude to him, saying that he is not doing his job right, he invites them to do a ride along. And he does so earnestly, according to him.
“That’s a way to increase the understanding of the public of what we do day in and day out,” he said.
“There’s a lot of politicians and public figures, in the world, that think they know how to our job better than we do,” Leedy continued. “If it was up to me, I’d make Mayor Schieve do a ride along. I would make the entire city council do a ride along, because they are in a position to make very important decisions that affect all of us. More so than we do.”
9 a.m. Saturday, November 18, 2017
After Leedy dropped me off at my car, I drove home and set my alarm for 5 a.m. and I woke up that morning at 9 — shit.
I call my manager at Squaw Valley before making my hour long commute to see if she still wants me to work even though, by the time I get there, I will likely be over four hours late. She says no and I apologize and she says it is no big deal and she will see me next weekend.
I work as a banquets bartender and waiter most weekends at the Lake Tahoe area ski resort to help supplement my graduate teaching assistant income — and get a free season pass. That morning, I think that I would never want Officer Leedy to know that I overslept and missed my shift, which would be embarrassing after getting dropped off early. I mentally thank my manager for her leniency. I think about my coworker, Joel, who is now without help, and I think that he will be OK. I think about my financial situation, and about how missing this shift might throw off my monthly budget. Then, I think about what I might be thinking about if I were a police officer and I had made a work-related mistake. I think about if Leedy had been four hours late to work, would Wozniak be OK?