Ted Conover on Immigration, Prisons and 21st Century Homesteading – #25

Steve and Corey talk to Ted about his article for the August issue of Harper’s Magazine, “The Last Frontier”.

Steve: Thanks for joining us. I’m Steve Hsu.

Corey: And I’m Corey Washington, and we’re your hosts for Manifold. Our guest today is Ted Conover. Ted is a pioneer of immersion journalism, intensive form of reporting in which the reporter lives with his subjects experiencing the world as much as possible from their point of view.

Corey: First heard about Ted when I was in college. Ted graduated from Amherst College a year before I started. Stories about his adventures riding the rails a few years earlier were still going around campus. The experience would become material for his first book, Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes. It came out in 1984.

Corey: He’s written four books intervening decades among other topics. Today we’ll be talking about immigration, the subject of his book, Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Mexican Migrants based on a year of traveling and working with migrant farm workers living in the Central American communities from whence they came, and prison reform, a topic related to his book, New Jack, about his time working as a prison guard in Sing Sing.

Corey: Ted has written articles for Harper’s, the New York Times magazine, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and others. He’s Director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University where he teaches courses on the “The Journalism of Empathy” and undercover reporting. Welcome to Manifold, Ted.

Ted: Thanks very much, Corey.

Corey: I’ve described you as practicing immersion journalism. How would you define that?

Ted: The basic journalism consists of a journalist asking questions about the five W’s, right? This is journalism 101, how to do an interview. I’m a journalist from X. You’re a representative of Y. Tell me this. As I thought more about journalism, I thought there’s lots of ways that journalists can learn things, that journalists might read a book or watch a movie. A journalist might have her own experience that’s relevant to the topic.

Ted: Say, the topic is addiction, and the journalist knows about that from her own life. It just occurred to me that journalism can be bigger than the five W’s and that journalists can learn through experience. And that having those experiences might be really interesting. And so, a number of times now I’ve thought of an experience I’d like to have and figured out how to have it with the idea that I would do it very intentionally. I wouldn’t just be out riding the rails for a big adventure. I’d be out riding the rails to learn about what it means to do that when you don’t have a choice, or that you have a small number of choices and you’ve chosen that.

Ted: One thing led to another. When I was riding the rails, I met a number of Mexicans riding the rails and was able to connect with them. And that made me think, “Oh, there’s definitely a book here. And it’s kind of proceeded that way where I see something that seems to me important to write about, and then I find a way to put myself in that picture. I tell this to my students. It’s really important not to claim you can learn more than a certain amount by immersing.

Ted: An aunt of mine said, “Oh, you know how to live on the rails and feed yourself out of dumpsters, you’ve become a hobo.” And I said, “No, no, no. I don’t want to be a hobo. I’ve not been through what those people have been through. I wouldn’t want to go through what they’ve been through. But I know more than I would have if I hadn’t tried this.” So that’s the underlying idea, is a journalist or another kind of writer can get out of his comfort zone and try to understand somebody else’s. Yeah, that’s it in a nutshell.

Corey: I was surprised to learn that you have lived in New York City pretty much for the past 30 years. It’s kind of surprising given the number of places you work and experiences you’ve had. I want to get on into the topic of how someone who is pretty urban and has a certain type of urban lifestyle these days, how you do get out of your comfort zone to experience that because it’s something that I think many people found is a problem with reporting these days, that people often don’t experience the world outside of major cities.

Ted: Yeah. It’s so interesting. One of my colleagues at NYU is Pete Hamill, the great New York journalist who likes to say that New York is the capital of people who are not like you. I really liked that idea that even a person identified with being Irish or Irish American takes it as a great point of pride that what he loves about the city is people who are not like him and being able to connect with them.

Ted: It’s telling, I suppose, that until the election of Donald Trump, I thought living around cities was the cure for all kinds of problems in society because living near other people forces you to consider their difference and hopefully be more tolerant and just think about society and all its diversity. But the election of Trump did make me think, as a New York-based journalist, I might have some of the same myopia that my colleagues on either coast do, which is we’re not thinking about people in the great middle so much who have felt left behind in recent years and feel alienated by the nation’s policies on immigration and other matters.

Ted: I’m from Colorado and miss it, so I’m always looking for a way to go back and spend more time there. That kind of leads to my most recent project, which is an immersion about people off grid out in Southern Colorado.

Corey: This was the topic of your cover story in Harper’s Magazine called the Last Frontier: Homesteaders on the Margins of America. He’ll have a link to that. It’s about the San Luis Valley in Colorado. Can you describe the valley and tell us why you chose to write about it?

Ted: Sure. I guess, about four years ago I revisited a different valley in Colorado where I’d spent a lot of time in high school with a buddy of mine doing cross country skiing and just hanging out in a remote cabin. And I realized that a lot of people had moved into other parts of this valley really often in nothing more than a little trailer with no utilities, nothing but a car in most cases. But they did that because they could buy land there. There’s still some really cheap land in Colorado.

Ted: This is not the sort of hippie, peace, love mountain man type of Coloradan that some people think about. There’s lots of people who’ve moved into remote parts of the state who basically prefer to be hermits. They don’t all get along with other people. There’s a lot of veterans with PTSD. There’s people who for various reasons are more comfortable out by themselves. There’s some people among them are interested in the marijuana. You can grow legally out there. Some of them are cancer survivors who want it for medical reasons. There’s all kinds of interesting people.

Ted: But I had not appreciated the poverty or the extremity of that kind of life until, like I say, just a few years ago. My sister works or she worked for a foundation in Denver that gives money to groups like one in Alamosa, Colorado, and the San Luis Valley that runs a rural homeless shelter, which I’d never even thought about a rural homeless shelter. But there’s homeless people in rural America too.

Ted: This is the second oldest shelter in the country like that. And lately they’ve been spending a lot of money taking care of people who are trying to live off grid and then fail to because they run out of wood or clothes or food. I met them and saw some of the pictures of where folks lived, which is kind of like Apalacchia without the trees, just a lot of shacks and mobile homes and deprivation, and asked if I could volunteer with their rural outreach program, and they said I could.

Ted: I did that, gosh, for a few months and then bought a little trailer and started renting a space from this family, the Grubers, so I could live out there and understand it from that perspective as well, what it’s like to be out there all the time. I’m talking to you from New York right now because my summer vacation ended the end of August, but I’m going back. I’m now in my third year of almost monthly visits. I’ll go back next month. I’ll go back in January. I’ll be back there next summer. Yeah, I’ve written an article and that’s the first piece of a book.

Steve: Were you thinking already at that point that you were going to write about it or was this just sort of something you wanted to do to see that part of Colorado?

Ted: It’s a little of both. I never know when I head out to a place if there’ll be a way for me to write about it, but I’m always hopeful there will. Yeah, that was the beginning, was the hope that I’d be able to write about it.

Corey: I have to say, reading the article that… I see myself as pretty aware of the demographics of poverty in the US. I think everyone’s familiar with urban poverty, Appalachian poverty, ex-urban poverty. But I didn’t know there are places like this where there’s great wide open, there’s cheap land. It’s fairly beautiful, although it’s pretty difficult place to live during the winter months. And that you can have something like 19th century homesteading.

Ted: In so many ways, lots of this valley looks the way it did 100 or 150 years ago. The biggest difference would be motor vehicles. Around the edges of the valley where there are mountains and evergreen trees is where the long-time residents prefer to live. The most long-time residents are Hispanics. The culture’s really connected to New Mexico. And there are a lot of people who speak this old-fashioned Spanish and really very little English, even people who grew up there and work on farms. That kind of blew me away too, how many people were not good at speaking English, but they’re American.

Corey: It’s kind of a twist on the immigration debate because-

Ted: It’s totally a twist. They look at mostly Caucasian people who’ve settled out on this prairie as squatters or… They don’t call them illegal immigrants, but they seem to think of them that way sometimes. The White people out there definitely feel they’re at the bottom of the totem pole and they complain about it.

Steve: Just to paint a picture for our readers who maybe haven’t read the article, this is kind of a flat, scrubby area of the valley, a little bit like New Mexico. And it gets very cold in the winter. People are living in trailers or not so well constructed cabins and such, off-grid often. And it seems to be a little bit lawless. There’s a lot of shooting. I guess a lot of people like ranging from someone’s pit bull to random people have been shot recently that you run into. I think people said if you left your stuff there, if you left a camper or something there, it would be definitely broken into while you were away. And yeah, definitely a very unique part of America.

Ted: And like the old West in a lot of ways, in the number of firearms, I’d say, the transience of a lot of people there. A lot of people don’t last very long. They come and go, new people arrive. But yeah, you point out a lot of the main features of it. And one of them, it’s huge. It’s really almost the size of New Jersey, the San Luis Valley, and the views, they go on forever. And the sky has several kinds of weather going on at the same time.

Ted: Environmentally, if you like that as I do, it’s kind of heavenly. I miss the humidity of the East Coast sometimes because I think that’s easier on respiration. But I like so much about being out there that, for me, it’s become a great counterweight to urbanness.

Steve: But by the time I got to the end of your article, I was wondering whether Ted actually bought some land out there and maybe put a shipping container there and built a little cabin. What have you actually got out there that you’re visiting? Is it just your sister or have you got a spread there now?

Ted: A spread sounds grand. I like that. I should get a spread. My sister’s in New Mexico and I have left my truck with her. But yeah, I’ve gone from owning a little trailer that I could move around to actually buying some land myself, so I’d have some skin in the game as far as that goes. Well, you can buy five acres for 3 or $4,000, which is a miracle really.

Steve: It’s like a month of rent in New York, right?

Ted: I know.

Corey: For a one-bedroom apartment.

Ted: You can actually own land. It turns out though, that if you try to live on it, you’ll be violating the law until you put in a septic system and a house that’s at least 600 square feet. So if you’re thinking you’ll live there in your RV, they might not let you. Law enforcement is underfunded and these counties are very poor and they don’t have many deputies. So a lot of things that wouldn’t go on in a more developed place do go on there. Yeah, well, there’s a lot of my neighbors seem to have felonies on their record and different reasons to be on the lookout for things.

Corey: You have one little anecdote in there where I think inspector’s going to show up at a woman’s house to look at her. She’s building some addition and she manages to drive away just before the deputies arrive.

Ted: I was doing a ride-along with the deputies, and as they came over the hill, they were looking really carefully at what was going on. And they saw her peeling out and clearly trying to avoid a meeting with them because they were there to tell her her construction was illegal. I’ve since gotten to know her a bit. She doesn’t like to talk about that particular episode. But yeah, there’s a lot… I think people love being able to do what they want out there.

Ted: I think this message of our president that there’s too much government resonates with life out there. People don’t want to be interfered with. It’s not a completely coherent worldview because lots if not most of them are dependent on government money to survive, whether it’s social security, disability payments, veterans benefits or food stamps. If a federal government did not exist, a lot of people out there would starve. But just the same, they’re against the idea of big government. And not saying everybody, but a lot of people.

Corey: You suggest in the article that most of the people out there are Trump supporters.

Ted: Yeah, I think that’s true. And that’s been another thing for me to figure out because I didn’t vote for Trump. But I’m willing to listen to people who did and try to figure out why. And particularly from the perspective of journalism, the journalists I know work hard to write factually and in a way that can be checked and duplicated, right? We pride ourselves on factuality. And so, to be told that there’s this decline in the trust of journalists and in fact a decline in the trust of traditional media of all kinds is kind of a problem, and I want to know why, right?

Ted: I want to know why people laugh when they hear I watch CNN as though that were some propaganda organ, right? I’m like, “Really?” So we have a lot of conversations where we’re starting so far apart and I just try not to get upset.

Corey: I spent about 10 years on the West Coast, four of it in Seattle. My family is from New York. I grew up in the East coast. I have to say that living out in Seattle especially gave me real appreciation for the kind of libertarian point of view that you describe. I mean, the idea that people really want to be left alone. And there’s a sense, especially in Seattle, just a physical sense of how far a move the federal government is, right? It’s 3000 miles away effectively, and you really feel it.

Corey: In many ways, Seattle feels closer to the Pacific Rim than does DC. And there’s a real sense of why those people over there telling me how to live my life, It was just in the air, even among people who were pretty liberal. There are all the contradiction to describe, and there’s people who are on some kind of public assistance, dependent upon the federal government. But there really was a sense of which people just wanted to kind of just be left alone.

Corey: The contrast is Seattle’s a fully developed place, and you’re describing a place that’s very… It’s almost an emerging society. And you described the beginnings of social services in the area from these small organizations. So if you could take a minute and read the… There’s a passage, we describe attempts of a social worker to meet people.

Ted: Yeah, sure. So yes, I’ll refer to this group called La Puente, which is a social service group started by nuns trying to deal with homelessness years ago. It’s really a vibrant, vigorous group based in Alamosa, the biggest town in this Valley. In 2015, La Puente realized that many attempts to live on the prairie ended with homesteaders presenting themselves at the shelter.

Ted: The workers there heard stories of people skipping diabetes medication because they didn’t have gas to get into town or running out of food, or being isolated in abusive relationships. While the Valley has approximately equal numbers of White and Hispanic people, poor people out on the prairie tend to be White. But it was all kinds of people.

Ted: Lance, this is the director. Lance’s Scouts reported that an African American woman and her four children were living in an unfinished house with little heat and no water. This is a quote. “We were getting stories like that and collectively thought we need to be out there,” said Lance. “We should have known this long ago. But like everyone else in the community who drives on paved roads, we hadn’t paid attention.”

Corey: Is this one of the first social service agencies in the area?

Ted: There are various nonprofits. This must be one of the first and it’s certainly one of the most prominent now. They’re very active. They have AmeriCorps volunteers who helps, helps staff the shelter, but they also run social enterprises like a used clothing store and a coffee shop. And they have a summer program for kids from families in crisis. They just do all kinds of great things. It’s great to roll up on somebody’s property with a La Puente sign on your truck, because people just know they do good stuff right there. They’re just there to help.

Ted: So that’s been one of the great pleasures of this research, is talking with Lance who’s a real expert on homelessness and understands the desire of people, how much they’ll put up with just to own their own place, right? Like this whole idea of home ownership, it applies whether you have a three-bedroom, three-bath house in the suburbs, or a trailer with a mattress on the floor and a dog on a chain in front. I mean the pride of ownership is there in both cases. And that’s been really fascinating too to see that at work.

Corey: As I was reading this article, I was thinking about your body work trying to figure a nice way to sum it up. You have a line in there which actually doesn’t sum up the body of work, but it sort of sums up your own personal outlook and you say I’m a city guy trying to fashion a bridge to the merchants.

Ted: I’m glad you noticed that. I had not paid attention to that myself, but it’s true. I think I’ve got advantages that come from my academic job, and I’ve got advantages that come with my education, from the advantages I had growing up. It just seems to me a good way to use that is to put myself out there. And it’s not just altruism either. I really like the challenge of learning something on my own, whether it’s, how do you get across the Rio Grande river if you don’t know how to swim, or how do you stay warm in a valley where it’s 20 degrees below most nights in January, right?

Ted: I worked at sing sing. How do you manage a large group of men more physically powerful than oneself in an effective way without having a weapon other than my own puny risks? So, yeah, how do I do that? I like the challenge and I keep looking for it.

Steve: It seems to me, having read a fair bit of your work, that you’re very interested in immersing yourself in the detail, and maybe a little bit of theorizing about the micro level incentives, like what does an individual in that maybe feel, or need to do. But there’s an absence of that more grand theorizing about, oh, what does this mean about America and what would Tocqueville have said about this.

Corey: Tocqueville does appear, however, in the book, in New Jack, I believe, right?

Ted: It does because he’s one of the first people to write about Sing Sing. Yeah. And Gustave de Beaumont has-

Steve: I guess, we can’t avoid Tocqueville. But it does seem like it’s somewhat atheoretical, right, it’s immersive, but a somewhat atheoretical. Is that fair?

Ted: I admire sociologists. I admire people who can explain things on a theoretical level. And I want to acknowledge them and be smarter because of them. But at the same time, my job as a writer is to reach people who are more interested in story than in theory. I often use my mom as an example of a person I’m writing for. She went to college, but she’d never read a work of sociology for pleasure. She could make her way through it, but she wouldn’t enjoy those big words.

Ted: I don’t think the lessons of it would stick with her as much as they would in a story with people she can relate to in it. So I try to make myself one of those people in my writing. I’m just more comfortable… I’m telling a story where I’m in the picture, so the reader isn’t pretending. I want to be up front about the change it makes for me to be there.

Ted: But then I want to tell stories that matter because of what’s being discussed in politics or in theoretical discussions about the reasons for poverty. It’s what I’m seeing evidence for this or is it not? But I try to carry that lightly because, again, I want people to pay attention, and it’s hard to get people to pay attention to some of these topics like prison.

Ted: Unless it’s a story about the electric chair or gang wars, people just are not that interested in reading about prison. Immigration is all over the news right now, but I think that in a way can dull the senses of some readers, if it’s just this drum beat of dysfunction on our border. And you want to transcend that and tell a story they’ll remember so they’ll care about it.

Corey: This is a perfect segue because I’d like to talk about immigration and your book, Coyotes. So restricting immigration, I mean, not to do exactly what Steve just said we shouldn’t be doing here, but-

Steve: I didn’t say we shouldn’t be doing.

Corey: Okay. Well, we’re going to talk about some grand themes here a little bit. Not ask you to theorize, but for strictly immigration policies, probably the Signature Initiative of the Trump presidency. I get the impression you might’ve had a few thoughts on this, having 30 years ago written a really interesting book about Mexican migrants.

Corey: The book came out 87. It’s 32 years old, but can you put yourself back in that time period and set the stage for the book? What led you to write it, and what strikes you different about the immigration debate back then to now?

Ted: A lot has changed. One of the enduring images of “illegal immigration” from my childhood and teenage years is that picture… I bet you remember some of these from news stories about people the border patrol caught on the US side, like jammed into the trunk of a big car and the border patrol agent opens the back of the trunk and there’s these people blinking back there. I thought that’s an inadequate representation of undocumented migration, to cast these people as criminals.

Ted: Might be fair in a very tiny percentage of cases. But in most cases, they’re people who, it seemed to me, resembled my ancestors in a lot of ways, and those of most of us in America. They came from somewhere else under all kinds of different circumstances, but that’s who they are. That’s who we are. There’s this constant cycle in the US of forgetting we’re a nation of immigrants and of deciding to pull up the mat.

Corey: My grandfather was an illegal immigrant. Yeah. He happened to walk off a ship from the Caribbean in 1917 and didn’t walk back. Yeah, [crosstalk 00:29:53]-

Ted: Seriously? Wow.

Corey: Disappeared into the West Indian community in Brooklyn.

Ted: Huh. He was able to regularize his citizenship somehow?

Corey: Eventually. Yeah. I don’t know how they pulled it off, but he did.

Ted: Yeah. So anyway, I didn’t like demonizing this whole class of people. And it wasn’t until I found myself… I think I was in Sacramento, California under a highway overpass waiting to catch out on a train, that I ran into three Mexican guys traveling together, who to my surprise were fine talking to me. I spoke decent Spanish at the time, not as good a Spanish as I did after my research for Coyotes, but solid Denver public school Spanish.

Ted: It was really fun to talk to them, and it made me think, “Oh, they will talk to me, because I had… It’s not easy to bridge that gap and get people to talk to you. But if you’re alone and you show yourself as a human being and make an effort, it’s possible. So I just thought this is an epic story, that people coming up here to try their luck and do some of our crummy jobs and take their chances. This is an epic thing. This is American history. This is what I want to do.

Ted: A bunch of things have changed since then. In the ’80s, most of those migrants were from Mexico. They’re mostly male. They were mostly headed for agricultural jobs, though some went to cities. And there are a lot of patterns in the migration. A village in Oaxaca would send workers every year to Florida to pick citrus in a village in Michoacan, would send workers to Arkansas to pick tomatoes.

Ted: There are all these patterns underlying what looked in the news like random immigration. I thought this is really interesting, the fact of these long-term relationships. And the farmers who probably vote conservative but depend on the return of these undocumented workers year after year to get their crops picked, I thought this is all pretty interesting.

Ted: Since then, a bunch of things have changed. Many more women are part of the mix now. Many more immigrants head to cities to work in shops, and lawn crews, and housekeeping, hotels. And in the last small number of years, a preponderance seem to be coming from Central America and escaping violence and upheaval there. Certainly there are almost no kids crossing when I was doing it, and that is a commonplace now. And so, yeah, things have changed.

Ted: Another thing that’s probably changed is, when I wrote Coyotes, nobody was writing about this first person, almost nobody. But there’s been this sort of democratization of American letters. So it’s much more likely to find people with a Latino background like Luis Alberto Raya or any number of fiction and non-fiction writers who’ve taken up these topics. I probably, I would write a different book about immigration these days. But the approach I took then seemed to work for the historical moment.

Ted: I love that book. I had the most fun researching that of any book I’ve done because the guys I was with looked after me. They were my age. They wanted an adventure. They were not like the hoboes with paranoia and drug problems. They want to have adventures. And so, yeah, that’s kind of the story behind Coyotes. I crossed the border three times with different groups of Mexicans and went from Phoenix, to Idaho, Los Angeles, and Florida.

Steve: You mentioned demonization where a someone who maybe is a anti-immigration or the stereotypical Trump supporter would regard all these people as criminals. But don’t you think there’s actually a demonization of people who want to have secure borders in the United States that you’re… If you say we should be a nation of laws and we should enforce the borders that we have, that, therefore, if you have that opinion, you are a racist and you really dislike these honest, hardworking people who want to work in the fields.

Steve: I feel like that demonization is just as present, actually more, perhaps stronger in our current society than the other one. I think Trump and other Trump supporters will often speak movingly about how if they were in that situation, they would leave Guatemala and come to the US and send money back to their family. They understand the economic forces that are driving these people to come to our country. But they also think that we should be a nation of laws and actually have laws regarding who can become an American citizen who can live here.

Ted: I think those arguments are often quite persuasive, that every country defines itself by its borders and its ability to control its borders. There’s lots of people who are against undocumented immigration because they’ll say their family had to wait, their family followed the rules and came when it was their turn, and these others are jumping the line. I respect that position and I’ve never thought we should have open borders.

Ted: In my book I talk more about the hypocrisy of welcoming people again and again to work certain jobs that keep our economy going while never offering them the legal accommodations that everybody else gets. There’s hypocrisy in the way we’ve treated these workers. As a matter of general principles, I’m not against controlling our border.

Ted: I’m actually not against stopping asylum seekers at the Mexico border with Guatemala. There’s nothing in the Geneva convention that says people get to go through, I don’t think, any country in order to get to the country where they want to apply for asylum. So I don’t think these issues are Black and White. And probably I find grounds for agreement with a lot of people who have some of those positions.

Steve: I was just thinking, Corey and I are both really like the city of Paris, and probably over time have spent many thousands of dollars as tourists. And so, I think the French owe it to me, I should just have a citizenship and a French passport, because I like it there. Why don’t they just let me live there?

Corey: I think this is really, really complicated. Steve, we go back and forth many ways. Coming back to your view about the cities, I find it very hard often to get many of my friends who are very, very liberal lefty, to see how some might want to restrict immigration. I give them one argument. Let’s get your reaction to it.

Corey: I moved here from New York and I used to live in Washington Heights. Washington Heights is largely a Dominican neighborhood now. There’s still some Black population, but it’s a very vibrant neighborhood. But a lot of the people there are undocumented, and you see undocumented people working in dry cleaning shops. Some people who own them are often documented but often employ undocumented people to work as superintendents in buildings, and they’re fantastic.

Corey: From my personal selfish point of view, I benefit immensely from liberal immigration policies because the price of dry cleaning is much cheaper in Washington Heights than is in East Lansing. I get extremely good Dominican food often cooked by undocumented people in Washington Heights. But I’m not competing with people in Washington Heights for jobs.

Corey: I compare it to a lot of the Black men I see in Washington Heights who, many of them don’t have jobs. Some of the jobs they had in the past was building superintendents. And these jobs are now occupied by Dominican immigrants, and much of the work done in the buildings is done by undocumented people. I tell my friends, I’m like, “Those guys in the corner don’t have jobs. They’re not Trump voters. But if they’re White, they might be because they’re losing out. They’re not benefiting the way I am from cheap dry cleaning and from inexpensive building care.”

Corey: I mean, look, the labor market, it’s a competitive market, no matter who you are and what level you are. And if you’re in this country with skills, you’re competing against somebody. You may be benefiting someone like me, but you’re competing with somebody else. And I try to get people to see the point of view that some people wouldn’t say [inaudible 00:39:30]. I mean, that’s too hard to say, it’s all nothing. But people benefit, and say people are hurt by immigration, it’s just a very complicated issue.

Ted: Yeah. Most hurt by undocumented immigration, as you say, are low on the economic scale. There’s a passage in Coyotes where a group I’m with is going to Houston to get work on a cement-pouring crew. I use it as a test. I say, “Well, let me try to get a job too,” and they look worried. And I go, “Well, let me just call the guy. Can I have his number? And they say, “Oh, okay. I tell the guy I’m willing to do anything. I’m a hard worker. I get along with these Mexicans, I speak Spanish. Can you give me a job?

Ted: And he’s like, “We really just work with Mexicans.” And I said, “Well, come on, I’m American. I could do this work.” He said, “I’ll ask the boss.” But that’s the end of it. There are jobs where that’s who they want and they won’t hire the Black guy who could be the super, or they won’t hire a guy like me. And you can’t deny that.

Ted: To me, where I part company with what’s happening in immigration policy now is you’ve got a super who’s worked 10 years. Is deporting him the best way to enforce our immigration policy, okay? Is dislocating families who’ve been here for years and years… Does that really make sense, or would we be better off, yeah, stopping the flow at the border or intervening… I’m not exactly sure how, but doing more to help the governments of El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala, return to a more familiar version of civil society that doesn’t produce all of these refugees.

Ted: Down in the San Luis Valley where I’ve been hanging around people, people love to say, “Build the wall,” and there’s a lemonade stand I passed where the sign says, “Help Trump build the wall. We’re raising money to build the wall.” And I’m like, “Oh wow.”

Steve: You gave a really good example that captures the difficulty of it. So guy’s been working in the US for 10 years. He’s responsible, maybe even as a family here. Maybe his kids were born here so they’re citizens. And they catch him. So what should they do? He violated the law. He’s not supposed to be here. Very tough.

Ted: It’s totally tough. I think workplace raids should be a last resort. And I think tearing apart a family that has native born children should be a last resort. That’s a horrific thing to do, and it fills me with shame whenever I see we’re doing it.

Steve: Just to turn it around though, when you were at Sing Sing, there’s a wall around Sing Sing. A lot of those people probably you agree should be in Sing Sing. It’s better for society that they’re locked up. But imagine you meet a guy. You’re working there for years, and you meet a guy who seems to be totally reformed. He’s a good person. You’d trust him maybe even babysitting your kid, but he’s serving a life sentence because he killed somebody. Would you just change the law and let the guy out? Is that really the right thing to do?

Ted: It’s not a fair analogy. He ended up in Sing Sing, chances are, because he killed somebody. If you’re in a maximum security prison, there’s a good chance you killed somebody. And that’s a whole lot different from, you took a job mopping the floor in a building in Washington Heights.

Steve: Yeah, the taking of the job is not the issue, but illegally entering a country and remaining there when you know it’s illegal. You break the law and then later they catch you for breaking the law. Should they just not punish you because it’s a little bit heartrending to punish you now? The guy could have been in Sing Sing 20 years and he killed the guy when he was 17, and now he just seems totally reformed. Let him out.

Corey: Yeah. I don’t think the analogy works. Man, let’s just stick with the argument, Steve, about the question of whether-

Steve: Well, it’s a rule of law question, right? So if you have laws in the books, yeah, sometimes it’s heartrending to enforce these laws.But sometimes you have to-

Ted: If you run ICE, Steve, and you have a billion-dollar budget, you can choose how to spend it. And spending it to deport long-term residents seems to me not the best way to spend it.

Steve: Yeah, I agree with that. I mean, the prioritization should be somewhere else. I don’t know the details about how they make that exact decision. But it’s also a big step to say, “Hey, if you’ve got a hard luck story, hey, good luck. Great for you. You’re a citizen now.” I don’t think that’s the right way to go either.

Corey: We’ve touched on Sing Sing a little bit, so do you want to get into New Jack and prison reform. But I do have a couple more questions on Coyotes. One of the big changes, I sense, reading your book is there was actually a fair amount of dislocation in these communities when the men were coming up from Central America. You did something which I had never seen before, for a reporter outside. You actually went there and lived in the communities where the men had left and you saw striking difficulties had been posed on these communities by lack of men.

Corey: What seems really different now is people often fleeing violence-ridden places to come to the States. So the immigration is trying… People are trying to solve their problems by leaving these communities rather than immigration itself causing problems. I mean, is that take right and do you think…

Ted: Yeah. The immigration from these Ranchos, the little villages in Central Mexico that are such net producers of migrants, that’s a voluntary thing that the men see opportunity and they want to send money home to their families. There’s one guy who told me, “I want to build the biggest house in [inaudible 00:45:35], which is this community of shacks, basically. And he built this two-story cement structure, which he’s very proud of.

Ted: It reminds me like in the city here, how common it is for women from various places, including the Caribbean, to leave their own children with relatives so they can care for the children of wealthy people and send money home. You see it and you think, “Oh, I don’t feel so good about that.” But it’s an economic choice they made.

Corey: One of these reminds me of something I noticed in the East Side of New York living there. I would say, “If the Martian came to the East Side of New York City, they’d be struck by the strange genetics of the place,” which is all these White kids with Black mothers walking around the park and like, “What’s going on here?”

Ted: I know. That’s exactly what it’s like. It’s a weird part of living in New York. But anyway, I don’t have a firsthand experience of being dislocated from Central America myself. But I do believe most of those people probably have a real fear of something terrible happening to them. And that has induced them to leave their home. So yeah, those are two very different kinds of immigration to me, and they’re hard to compare.

Corey: It’s interesting. At the time you were writing Coyotes, I was actually spending some time in Nicaragua. I was a sandalista back then.

Ted: You were?

Corey: Yeah. I spent time there over summers in January of 1986. But that’s thought to be the beginning of the current troubles, which is you had a lot of these wars, a lot of kids left during the wars to go to, often Southern California, got involved in gangs there, often end up in prison, get deported back to Central America, again now fully prepped in how to organize a gang and violence. And they’ve kind of wrecked these countries.

Corey: I don’t want to [inaudible 00:47:54] into the trap of trying to blame US, saying the US is the cause of all the problems in this era. I think that’s actually not right. But I think there’s probably some influence of the wars we supported, some of the violence in Southern California leading back.

Corey: Something else has become really… I think also movement in recent years is trying to averse the policies of mass incarceration. There’s a generalized view, I’d like to see your attitude towards it, that the war on drugs was really with overkill. Was a serious mistake and ruined a lot of people’s lives for this very little reason.

Corey: As I understand it, part of your motivation for becoming a prison guard was to get inside prisons in what at the time was the height of mass incarceration. Right. So again, I’d like to take you… Same way you described coming to write Coyotes… And your story about New Jack’s actually quite funny because you said you wrote it as a result of a failure to get in Sing Sing by legitimate means.

Ted: Sometimes failures can be productive. But yeah, I had a connection to the New Yorker. I’d published a story on riding with truck drivers in this route in Central Africa that was associated with the spread of HIV. I had just moved to New York and I thought, “This is the big story,” all these headlines about record numbers of people locked up and the racial character of the incarceration, the preponderance of occupants of these state penitentiaries are young men from the five boroughs of New York City, what’s it like in those prisons, how could I write about this?

Ted: I usually start my projects with reading, and the best books about life in American prisons are by prisoners, whether George Jackson or Jack Henry Abbott, the prisoner who was a good writer, that Norman Mailer helped get out. And, of course, immediately, like six weeks after he got out, he stabbed and killed a waiter on Houseton Street. That was a bit of a mistake. But I thought, “I can’t become a prisoner,” not in any that doesn’t look ridiculous where I’d be let out to go home at night. I didn’t want to try something like that.

Ted: I thought the one perspective that really has not been addressed is that of guards, of officers. And that’s something I could conceivably write about. So yeah, I got an assignment from the New Yorker to write about a family of upstate COs. And then the state wouldn’t let me go to work with them. They’d let me tour a prison of my choice, but then I couldn’t go back and see how the aunt who had worked there 20 years did her job, or the nephew who was just starting as a rookie, how he did his job, they wouldn’t let me in.

Ted: That I think is the first project I approached surreptitiously. I thought in this case it would be ethical to hide my intent because the subject matters so much, and it would give me access to a really unusual story that would, I think, really help the current debate about mass incarceration. So that’s the background.

Ted: I’m not the first person to have done this. A couple of journalists did it in the ’70s, but just for a week or two. I’m the first one to do it for such a long time. It took me a long time to get the job. I think it took three years from when I applied to take the civil service exam to when I got hired.

Ted: Shane Bauer did a shorter stint as a private prison guard in the South for Mother Jones a couple of years ago, and he got hired in a week because they’re so desperate for prison guards at $12 an hour or whatever they were paying him. But, no, I joined the correction officers union after I had already sat down with them to report a story the usual way. And that’s the book I’m best known for and probably the most stressful research I’ve ever done.

Steve: Did your time at Sing Sing lead you to any conclusions about mass incarceration? Of the people that you saw in there, how many of them did you really think should have been locked up as opposed to out on the street?

Ted: Most corrections officers aren’t in a good position to make that judgment because we’re not allowed to see their whole history. We can see their rap sheet or when I was working there, this online inmate lookup went live. So you could find out what somebody had been convicted of. But that’s not really enough to know or to make up your mind about whether they should be in.

Ted: But there’s a scene where I’m walking a guy to the hospital building one day. He’d gotten a cockroach lodged in his ear. It was really there. It was astonishing. And as we walked back, I’m just chatting with him. He and I are walking through these long, dark halls that connect old brick buildings. I said, “So what are you here for?” He said, “Armed robbery and it’s connected to the drugs.”

Ted: I said, “Well, how long is your bid?” He said, “CO, I’m here till the sun burns out.” This guy was like 20 years old. So I don’t think a 20-year-old should be sentenced to prison till the sun burns out, even if he did something really bad. I think, American sentencing, especially in those years, was extremely harsh and out of proportion to both the crime and the social interest in our interest as citizens, and not paying $70,000 a year to keep somebody locked up, but rather maybe hoping they might contribute something to society one day.

Ted: So I met a bunch of people who I thought, “You’re so young. You should not be here till you die.” But I’ll be candid, Steve. I met guys who I thought, “Thank goodness you’re locked up here.” I met prisoners who just said, “Conover, I know you believe in rehabilitation, but some of these guys was never habed in the first place. Don’t let them out. Like you hear other prisoners say that about certain people and you think, “Well, that’s a good point.”

Steve: It’s kind of an impossible question because you could take a perfectly law-abiding person. And if they get locked up for… they say they’re innocent, but they get locked up anyway, they could turn into a really terrible person after being in prison for a long time. And similarly, somebody who seems like a nice guy in prison, when he gets out, he might stab a waiter the next day. So it’s just tough to know.

Ted: Oh, it is. And prisons make people worse, I think in most situations. There is exceptions. Then just a perfect example of people not belonging there is a guy who changed his name to Habib on his third prison sentence. He was born Vincent Jenkins in Newark. He converted to Islam, which a lot of African-American men do in prison. Was in his late sixties, I think, and he’s done, for his third sentence, and it was for rape. And I said, “Really?”

Ted: And he said, “Yeah, how many guys do you know convicted for rape when they’re 65 years old?” And I said, “Well, you’re the only one I know.” And he said, “I didn’t do it either.” And you learn as an officer not to argue. A lot of people tell you they’re innocent and you just stop arguing. You go, “Okay. All right. Fine. You’re innocent.”

Ted: This guy was innocent. He got transferred to the geriatric unit of a different prison right after I quit. I went to visit him. He told me, “My lawyer’s going to get me out.” She’s got a DNA evidence. I got the Innocence Project working for me. And six months later I’m lying in bed watching a New York 1 News, and out from Green Haven Prison comes Habib, Warith al Habib with this pro bono lawyer he talked about and Barry Scheck, and he’s telling the truth.

Ted: And I had been part of his punishment, so I had locked him up. I had told him to get in his cell, his shower’s over. Get in there. So I to think as a journalist, I’m not going to be implicated and stuff like that. But I was a prison guard and I locked him up. So yeah, I still think about that.

Steve: When you’re telling a prisoner, “Hey, shower’s…” Now, this guy was old, but imagine he was not old. He was the 20-year old guy and very physically imposing, and you say, “Hey, Joe, your shower’s over, get in the cell.” What are you feeling there? Are you feeling like, “Hey, if this guy loses his temper, they’re not going to be able to save me before he cracked my skull on the tile.” Do you ever think that way or do you just have to feel like, “I’m in charge of the situation?”

Ted: No. You think that way because you’re a human being, and that’s a rational analysis of the situation, that he could come out and crash my head against the tiles. But the challenge is to act like you’re not thinking that way so that he doesn’t think you’re thinking that way. But there’s a day I started threatening a guy taking his shower with loss of privileges. This was a very muscular man. He turned off the shower, he said, “Okay, I’m done.” And I said, “But you’re covered was soap.” He said, “I’m done, CO, let me out. And I’m like, “Uh-oh,” because he’s totally covered with soap and shampoo and I’m alone on the floor of this prison cell.

Ted: And I let him out. He came right into my face and he’s going, “Motherfuck, don’t you tell me when my shower’s over. I’ll teach your ass,” and blah, blah, blah. And I’m like, “Oh, shit.” Just then some other officers came around the corner and he backed down. But that scenario plays in your mind every single day and you’ve got an alarm on your radio so you can call for help if you’re in a situation you can’t handle. But helps going to take two or three minutes anyway to get there. And that’s a long time to be with a big strong guy who hates your guts. So that’s a frightening job. And I think I had some PTSD when I left there.

Corey: Rumor has it that you finished the assignment because it was affecting your marriage. Is that right?

Ted: It certainly didn’t help my marriage. I thought I was doing my wife a favor by not sharing the stress of my day. I’m not going to tell my wife about the guy covered was soap who was in my face or about slipping in that pool of blood in the hallway because I didn’t see it. It was so dark there. There’s stuff you just… We had a baby daughter at the time. You just don’t want to bring that home.

Ted: On the other hand, if you don’t talk about it, it manifests. And she could tell I was upset and just shut down. Yeah, I thought I was being very generous and nice in the way I was dealing with that with her, and I don’t think I actually did such a good job.

Steve: Back to that shower scene, is there any kind of code among the guards that if I saw a prisoner who looked like he was in your face and might do something, that we’ve got to beat this guy down so they learn that you can’t do stuff like that. Was that part of it?

Ted: Well, you would feel bound to protect me from injury. That’s the way I think we were trained to look at it. And if in the course of keeping me from being injured, he got a little bit hurt, that might not be too upsetting to the officers involved.

Steve: But it was not considered okay that this guy looked like he might have gone off on my buddy, Ted, but he didn’t, but I’m still going to beat him down, that doesn’t happen so much.

Ted: If I pulled my pin, if I said, “I’m feeling I’m really threatened, I need help, that’s all that would be needed for them to use physical force and restrain him. And in the course of restraint, sometimes more force is used than it was absolutely necessary. It’s funny, the longer I worked in prison, the less that disturbed me. And I say this very candidly, I don’t think that’s right.

Ted: I think there’s rules in prison, and of course, everyone should follow them. And no extra force should ever be used against anybody. But the whole culture of prison polarizes you into prisoner or officer. And if I’m scared and you come to my aid, I feel love towards you. And if you hurt that guy while helping me, I’m not too upset by it.

Steve: Yeah. It’s kind of natural.

Corey: Yeah, it’s just acculturation happens under any kind of circumstance. You do discuss some people in there who took pretty different approaches towards prisoners. It’s funny. At some point in time, I think you give these two extremes of one guy who’s incredibly hard and one guy’s like a homie. You say, “I want to be right down in the middle.” But one more successful guys you describe is a guy who you just say treats prisoners like human beings. Where was that?

Ted: He grew up like I grew up in Harlem. He believed in law and order, but he also believed in drawing lines. And he hadn’t committed a felony and they had, and they needed to comply with his directions. He wasn’t going to get personal about it, but he’s going to enforce the rules. I just really admired him and I feel bad because I openly praise him in my book. And of course he got all kinds of shit for that after my book came out. Yeah, “Conover says you’re the best officer.”

Steve: Ted, when you’re working in these situations, how much of the time are you thinking, “Hey, this is material I can use for my book,” because you’re in there actually… I mean, your purpose for signing up to work at Sing Sing was to gather material for your writing. Is that right?

Ted: It was, yeah.

Steve: So does it completely recede from your consciousness? How much does it affect your behavior when you’re in there?

Ted: Not much. A lot of prison work is kind of boring and you do have time to think, “Oh yeah, the joke I just heard that prisoner tell would be pretty good to write down. And I might go around a corner and write it down. And I’ve got this little notebook in my breast pocket and you’re supposed to use it to write prisoner’s numbers and the things they want. But I would use it to write stuff like that.

Ted: On the other hand, there’ll be moments of terror or excitement and in that moment, you’re not a writer. You’re just a guy trying to survive. And it’s not til hours later sometimes that you realize, “Oh, that might be good to write about.” So there were a bunch of things that happened to me, including a day I got slugged, and I don’t know, a story I heard on the radio one morning driving to work about in New York City school teacher who’d made friends with some of his students and the couple of them had been robbed him, and I think he got killed.

Ted: And I was thinking, “That’s the lost kids who are going to come…” They’re going to be on my cell block in a year.” Once they go through the system, those lost souls are going to be work are going to be in cells. I’m not a deadline journalist, because it takes me a couple of days to figure out, that’s something important and I should really write it down. And I do write stuff down. And that’s how I would actually transition from the job back to my home life as I’d sneak in the back door and type out my notes until it was just out of my system and I could go be normal with my kids.

Corey: Did anyone get onto you during the course of your reporting that kept this suspicious?

Ted: There is one guy who was suspicious. He was my bunk mate at the training academy in Albany. He was a former marine, worked as a welder upstate. He’s like, “Where are you from? Conover? And I said, “I live in the Bronx,” which I do. And he’s like, “You don’t live in the Bronx.” I said, “Well, I live in a nice part of the Bronx.” He’d go, “What the fuck? What are you doing here, Conover?” And I’d go, “What are you doing here? Let me get some sleep.” It’s like, yeah, he made me. He figured me out, and I had to just keep telling him he was-

Steve: He was on you like a George Plimpton, you know-

Ted: Exactly.

Steve: … George Plimpton? Did he train with Muhammad Ali and he played quarterback for the Detroit Lions for a little while as a-

Ted: Exactly. He tried his hand at all these sports, and he’s a great model of immersion journalism, more for entertainment than social change.

Steve: Nobody thought Plimpton was for real in any of those situations.

Ted: No, he’s got this patrician accent and everything. The only person besides that CO was a prisoner who is incredibly perceptive. Wow, one day I had brought a suit to the office because my wife and I were going to a wedding reception up in Westchester after work. I was out so late at that party. I got three hours sleep. I went back to work the next day. And this prisoner watched me walking down the corridor with his mirror and he said, “Conover, how come you’re walking like you should be wearing a tuxedo today?

Ted: I said, “What are you talking about?” And I felt he just looked right into my soul. A different day he said, “What are you doing here, Conover. You should be a teacher or something like that. I don’t know what you’re doing here.”

Steve: I’m sure there’s some perceptive guys in there, right?

Ted: There are.

Steve: No question.

Ted: There are.

Corey: Ted, there’s actually lots I want to ask you about this, but I feel we’re taking up a lot of your time. But I still want to get back to your original book because we teach at the university, we work at university. Actually, none of us teach anymore. And these start off your undergraduate thesis. And it’s pretty remarkable what you did. I think many people are looking for exciting thesis projects. They want to do something slightly different. And I can’t think of any better example of someone thinking of a pretty interesting thesis project that really led to a life’s work. So take us back to, what was it, 1979?

Ted: When I discovered anthropology, I didn’t really know what anthropology was till I got to college. And once I learned about ethnography in the anthropological field method, which is participant observation, I thought, “Well that’s like the journalism I want to do.” Only anthropologists spend more time. They go deeper. They learn the language. They’ll make a home in a different place for a few years.

Ted: So I thought, “Well, if they’ll let me do an ethnography, I’ll write a thesis. And they actually weren’t that keen for me to do an ethnography. And when they learned it would involve riding the rails, they said that would not be possible because after all, it’s against the law. You’re on private property. Then my advisor said… He was this great guy, but he was very sort of ivory tower, and he said, “Besides, you could be subject to homosexual rape or fall off a train and lose your legs.”

Ted: I said, “Well, those things could happen, but really I’m going to be careful.” He said, “I’m sorry, I cannot condone this project.” I circled back though, and I said, “What if I left college, if I went on a leave of absence, and I rode the rails with the express purpose of taking notes of asking all these questions that ethnographers asked, would you consider letting me write my thesis about it?”

Ted: To my amazement, they said yes. So they weren’t committed, but they were open to it. When I came back, you’ll like this. I actually got credit retroactively for riding the rails upon payment of tuition for that semester. So the college came out ahead. But I did too because I got to do real research. I got to consider that discipline at the most essential level, which is a person by himself trying to make sense of this foreign world.

Ted: And then I got to have this kind of mythic American adventure of riding freight trains. I just feel so lucky it actually worked out, and I did not lose my legs, etc.

Steve: I can’t resist. I know we’re running out of time, but I’ve got to ask a few questions. Were you aware at all of any of Hemingway’s writings when he was young, about being a hobo and… He actually talks about you have to have a knife, otherwise you’ll be subject to homosexual rape. So maybe your professor had read that.

Ted: I think probably. There’s all kinds of great writers, Oliver Wendell Holmes. There’s a bunch of obviously Kerouac, and lots of great literary figures have done their time riding the rails. And I read a bunch of those before I went. I don’t think many of them actually did it for very long. It’s more a matter of, can you ride a couple trains and meet some guy with a dirty face and have a cup of whiskey or coffee with him in a freight yard and then you can go home.

Ted: For me, it was not about that so much as I really wanted to know why would a person really choose to do this week after week, month after month? Because parts of it are great, but lots of it is not. So yeah, it was a way to have an adventure but really think about it. Yeah. That’s kind of what I’ve kept doing.

Corey: Back in the 90s, I was teaching a University of Maryland. I got to know people at the National Coalition for the Homeless. They had a program called the Urban plunge where college students would go live on the streets for two days, often under the guidance of one of the homeless people who the coalition knew. And I sent a bunch of students on this project to have this experience.

Corey: They said it was transformative, although they did it for such a small period of time, a fraction of what you did it four, and your experience, of course, a fraction of what an actual person riding the rails or a homeless person did. But I personally actually did it for three days.

Ted: Oh really?

Corey: And I lived on the streets of DC. It was the most eye-opening experience of my life. I mean, I can count among the top five. It was just absolutely singular. You get the sense of how incredibly cold it is on days in which it doesn’t seem very cold because you’re sleeping on cardboard on concrete often. You have to trust people who you don’t actually know. And so, you’re in this group of people, but you never quite fall asleep.

Ted: Exactly, the sleeping is the scariest part.

Corey: It’s extraordinary. And the other thing that… You really become a sense of how you feel excluded for normal society. So I describe it as you get the impression there’s like a ceiling above you which is kind of a glass ceiling. You can see these people above you, but they’re in a different world. You don’t feel like you can talk to them. You begin to kind of internalize a sense of inferiority, and it’s reinforced.

Corey: Like I went into book stores and I’d get kicked out within half an hour if I had my garbage bag full of things. I taught homelessness for a couple of years, but I just had no conception. Of course, I went home to my place a little while after that, my comfortable place in Adams Morgan. But still, the awareness of that perspective stuck with me, and it just gave me really different sense of what it’s like to be… at least as a glimmer, what it might be like for someone to be on the streets. I actually made a friend through there, a homeless guy, and I gave him the keys to my apartment and he would come and go as he liked.

Ted: Wow.

Corey: His name was Noodles. He reminds me some of the people you talked about. He’s a guy who the coalition at various points tried to get Noodles housing and a job.

Ted: Noodles was his name?

Corey: It was Noodles, yeah. He didn’t want to stay in housing regularly. He didn’t want the job. He’s one of the small percentage of people who actually liked the freedom. It’s a very social place. I mean, almost everyone I encountered was crazy, not even exaggerating, to some degree. I think living on the streets for a substantial period of time makes you crazy, which people have realized now that the Housing First Movement. The idea is now you have to get people off the streets before they become stable enough and get help.

Corey: But Noodles really, he just seemed to thrive out. I don’t think he’s alive anymore because nothing will end your life faster than living on the streets for a long time. But even that tiny experience for me was just incredibly eyeopening.

Ted: I’m so glad you told that story. I met a couple of professors in Denver when I was writing Rolling Nowhere, who sent their students out for those kinds of experiments just for a night or two. And there was a moment, wasn’t there, in the culture when people were trying that kind of thing more often. I think it’s faded. But I think as long as it’s properly contextualized, what might be gained, that a lot can be gained because you experience this on such a visceral level when people won’t look at you.

Corey: That’s it. People don’t make eye contact with you. That’s one the singular thing. That creates incredible sense of inferiority.

Ted: Yep. Exactly. Exactly. It’s so powerful and it’s so quick, that lesson.

Corey: As a result, now I make a point to making eye contact with people. It’s just seems like it’s almost a dehumanizing act not to, having had the experience. Similarly, it’s interesting. There’s one woman who immediately made me. She just like, “Hey, are you really homeless?” Because I think the fact I was Black helped a lot because in DC, a overwhelming majority of homeless population’s Black. But she wasn’t having any of it.

Steve: You don’t live in the Bronx.

Corey: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. [inaudible 01:16:32].

Steve: Hey, Ted, I’ve one final question. I know we’re almost out of time. The style of journalism that you do, when you encounter students that are interested in that kind of thing, what do you say to them? How do you teach them? I mean, not the kind of kid who just wants to be a beat reporter at the Washington Post or something. But this kind of stuff that you do, what do you say to them?

Ted: I say, A, journalism’s a hard way to make a living. You’d be lucky to get a regular kind of journalism job these days. But that said, the world, it’s crying out with situations that would benefit from having a journalist there and people who would benefit from having a witness to what they’re living through. The barrier to entry is often practically zero in terms of money.

Ted: If you’re a middle class person, you probably can figure out how to get where you need to go to try something like this. The biggest cost is the opportunity cost of giving up a different kind of job to take some time to try something. But I say, do everything you can to ensure your safety. Don’t take crazy risks. Don’t drink with the hobos before you get on the train. If you don’t trust that guy, sleep a mile away from him.

Ted: I did carry a knife briefly, but I felt so much more at risk carrying one than not carrying one that I got rid of it. But I tell people, I think there’s a lot of room for risk taking in the world we’re in, and that you should think about that. So I do encourage them, but not in any kind of Yahoo way, if you will because things can go wrong. They definitely can go wrong. That said, if you’re a careful person, I think there’s a lot to be gained.

Corey: Well, Ted, this has been absolute pleasure.

Ted: Likewise. I appreciate the chance to talk about things at this level.

Corey: We’re hoping that you’re willing to come back to talk to us about your new book when it comes out, or maybe some of your articles because Steve actually passed me the article about the slaughterhouse, your time at USDA. We don’t have time today, but I just want to ask you, how do you manage to get hired anymore because… I mean, that’s for another day, but hoping to talk to you again.

Ted: Let’s start the next interview with that question because that’s very germane.

Corey: Right.

Ted: Okay.

Corey: Thanks so much.

Steve: Thanks a lot, Ted.

Ted: Talk to you later. Yeah. Thanks, guys.

Creators and Guests

Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University.
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