Ongoing Investigation of EB-5 Fraud Charges at Jay Peak

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The Situation

The plan was grand: Half a billion dollars of private money invested in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the state’s most rural — and most economically challenged — region. Four-season destination resorts, year-round manufacturing jobs, an international airport, a veritable “Renaissance” to revive the economy on the shores of Lake Memphremagog, which spans the Canadian border.

This black cat slipped beneath a chain link fence that cordons off the city block razed for a development that never came. © Hilary A. Niles

Some of those projects did get built: Jay Peak Resort, formerly a sleepy ski area with renowned slopes, now also boasts an indoor water park, golf course, hockey arena, hotels, penthouse suites and condominiums galore. Burke Mountain Resort likewise got its first hotel, and an on-site conference center.

But in Newport, Vt., the Canadian border town, an empty hole the size of a city block gapes where commercial buildings and apartments were razed to make room for the Renaissance project that isn’t to be. At the state-owned airport, an extended runway awaits international flights that can’t land without U.S. Customs operations in the new terminal that’s not built. Those manufacturing projects? Never begun.

And roughly 700 immigrant investors from 74 countries, who collectively poured about $350 million into the master vision, are yet unpaid. Some have received the green cards offered in exchange for their investments, through the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor program. Others’ immigration status hovers in limbo, while federal and state lawsuits play out against Jay Peak owner Ariel Quiros and longtime resort president Bill Stenger.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Vermont’s financial regulators allege the two men perpetrated a “massive” securities fraud in which they illegally pooled and misappropriated investor money for years. Quiros, they charge, also leveraged the funds through unauthorized loans, which he then used to help amass his own personal fortune.

Also implicated in the saga: state officials, from governors to department heads to employees charged with overseeing the state’s EB-5 program since 1997.

The coverage

Bill Stenger surveys construction developments at Jay Peak Resort. © Hilary A. Niles

Did Quiros really do it? Did Stenger know and help? Should or could the state have prevented the alleged fraud, or stopped it sooner? If this happened at Jay Peak — and in Vermont, where the state government itself oversees EB-5 developments — what’s occurring in places with less accountability?

My ongoing investigation, in partnership with Vermont Public Radio, tells the unfolding tale of Jay Peak, of the hundreds of immigrant investors who trusted its leaders with their money, and of the state officials who kept giving their developments green lights — until announcing in April 2016 sweeping fraud charges against them.

My EB-5 coverage has also aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered:

in The Montreal Gazette and Boston Globe:

and prior to the charges, on the Vermont-based nonprofit news website VTDigger.org as a staff reporter:

I have also been featured on radio and television news programs (VPR, Vermont PBS, CBC) to discuss the ongoing situation and my reporting on it.

The Bestwick Boys

Broadcast on Only A Game, from NPR and WBUR Boston

* * *

Dick Bestwick (left) helped coach the 1964 Westminster College football team to an undefeated season. Decades later, his coaching philosophy still resonates. (Courtesy of Westminster College)

“When I was a teenager, my dad gave me an engraved silver bracelet from his days at Westminster College, a tiny Division III liberal arts school in Western Pennsylvania. I wore the bracelet for years — it’s made to stretch over any size hand. It’s engraved with Dad’s name: ‘Herb Niles: Co-Captain 1965 Titans.

“Growing up, this was one of the key things I knew about my dad’s life before he became my dad: He didn’t just play college football. He was co-captain of his college football team …” 

* * *

This spring and summer, I had the honor of interviewing not only my father, but also one of his former teammates and their college football coach, Dick Bestwick, about the lasting bonds from their undefeated season in 1964. This is their story.

Buckle up your chinstraps and get ready for the za-zu-zaz.

// Listen here and read the full story

Q Empire: The man behind the Northeast Kingdom’s biggest plan

3332 words / VTDigger.org

Ariel Quiros is the entrepreneurial force behind Jay Peak ski resort and the $600 million Northeast Kingdom Economic Development Initiative – one of the largest development projects ever attempted in Vermont.

Though the project is high profile, Quiros is not. The international tycoon, though sometimes seen, is seldom heard.

Ariel Quiros whispers to Gov. Peter Shumlin during a press conference at Jay Peak’s Stateside Hotel and Baselodge. Photo by Hilary Niles/ VTDigger

The first generation American stands out at press conferences for his mystique: When he’s not got the ear of the governor, Quiros is most often seen standing uncomfortably before a crowd with pursed lips, staring silently and expressionless, at nothing in particular, through ice blue eyes.

Quiros quietly presides over an integrated set of projects that together constitute the largest private investment Vermont has ever seen: expansions at Jay Peak, development of the newly renamed Q Burke Mountain ski area, the mixed use Renaissance Block planned for downtown Newport, the future site of a biotech firm in the same town, and the promise of a new and improved Newport State Airport in Coventry.

“I make the vision,” he says quietly, a touch of gravel in his voice after 20-plus years of smoking.

His accent, clearly from New York, is also infused with the Puerto Rican and Venezuelan accents of his mother and father, respectively. He speaks three languages and his English borrows sometimes a tense from Spanish or a cadence from Korean, his wife’s native tongue.

He just sees things, Quiros says. He gets a vision for what can be, ignores all obstacles, and surrounds himself with people who can make it happen.

And they do, which is why Quiros likes to keep to himself. Business risk is thrilling, but trust is a precious commodity for a millionaire. Quiros is generous with friends, but says he hasn’t fought for all he’s built to give it away, much less have it taken.

// Read More

Community fears history will repeat itself at Q Burke Mountain

3310 words / VTDigger.org

It’s the day before Q Burke Mountain opens for the winter, and Ary Quiros could just as well be preparing for battle as for business.

The new CEO is opening the ski resort for the first time since he started at the mountain the previous winter, and he’s amped. If Quiros, 36, can turn this chronically failing but beloved ski area into a stable business, he will succeed where prior, much wealthier, owners have failed.

The arc of history and local expectations give him long odds. But Quiros — and his staff — are determined.

Wearing a weathered, Army green jacket and frequently checking a watch face practically the size of his wrist, Quiros shuttles from one outpost of operations to another to check on his troops: snowmaking, ticket sales, kitchen, pub and cafeteria. Finances. Marketing. Housecleaning.

“It’s like being in the Army again,” Quiros says. The 12-year veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is now a captain with the Vermont National Guard. He relishes intensity in the field, clarity of mission, camaraderie, and he applies his military leadership experience to Q Burke Mountain operations.

Ary Quiros served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and held other posts in Afghanistan and South Korea before taking over as CEO of Q Burke Mountain ski area in Vermont. Photo by Hilary Niles/ VTDigger

“You take care of them,” Quiros says about both his military units and staff. “They watch your back, and you move forward.”

The responsibility to provide for and protect his staff weighs heavily on Quiros, perhaps even propels him.

And his military analogy for mountain operations is echoed by his father, Ariel Quiros, who purchased Burke Mountain in 2012.

Ariel Quiros says half a dozen buyers before him couldn’t close the deal because of the mountain’s high-profile history and reputation with banks and investors: Bankruptcies dating back to the 1980s. A bounced tax check to the town for $97,374.30. More bankruptcies. A public auction. Ginn Companies’ $675 million default with Credit Suisse bank.

“Boom boom boom, bombs away,” Quiros says. “Everybody’s shelling the mountain, all the banks, doesn’t wanna fund it. All the businessmen failed.”

Some of them, Quiros notes, possessed or managed wealth that far exceeds his own, built from international trade since the 1980s. Bernd Schaefers was a German movie producer who made “The NeverEnding Story” and “In the Name of the Rose.” Donald Graham founded investment firms that collectively manage upwards of $7 billion. Developer Bobby Ginn presided over real estate transactions across the country that also measure in the billions.

None of their business plans at Burke held. Some went down in flames.

And plans now are as grand as ever: to brand the mountain as year-round training grounds for elite athletes. Buildout is expected to cost about $108 million and will include four hotels, an aquatic center, tennis facility and indoor mountain biking park.

But this time, even more is at stake.

// Read More

Schaefer brings tenacity, ambition to second state Senate campaign

1962 words / The Columbia Missourian

COLUMBIA — Kurt Schaefer doesn’t mind giving advice, but he’d rather be the one making decisions.

The incumbent 19th District senator learned this about himself after advising countless legislators and policy makers as a prosecutor in the Missouri Attorney General’s office.

“After a while, it could get frustrating to see them not taking our advice, especially on policy issues,” Schaefer said. In 2007, he decided to fix that. He’d try to make the laws himself.

Schaefer, a Republican, ran for state Senate in 2008 and beat the incumbent Democrat, Chuck Graham, whose favorability sank after his drunken driving arrest the previous October.

Now Schaefer, who has become chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is running for re-election against Democrat Mary Still, a two-term 25th District representative in the Missouri House.

It is rare for a Republican to represent the Senate district that includes Columbia, which politically leans to the left. Schaefer, who won by fewer than 400 votes in 2008, was the first Republican to take the district since at least 1979. If he wins in November, it would be the first time a Republican would serve two terms in the 19th District seat, he said.

Self-reliance

“My wife told me she’d leave me if I ever ran for office,” he said with a grin last week from his corner office at Lathrop and Gage, the Jefferson City law office where he is a partner. Schaefer left his post as a state prosecuting attorney to join the firm, which is based in Kansas City, with offices around the country.

Schaefer passed a rainbow-colored plastic slinky back-and-forth from hand to hand. The Lathrop and Gage logo is wearing off the side of the prop he often uses to keep his hands moving while he talks.

He and his wife, Stacia Schaefer, joke about her ultimatum now, but running for office was a big decision at the time. Stacia Schaefer had grown up in Jefferson City and gone to school with one of the daughters of former Missouri governor and U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft. She saw firsthand how life could get complicated for family members of public figures.

“But I don’t think it has to be that way,” Kurt Schaefer said. After much discussion, they agreed that he would run, and they would turn the experience into a learning opportunity for their three children: Max, 14; Wolf, 11; and Lena, 7.

Kurt Schaefer reasoned that their kids could learn a lot more about how government works by watching their dad than they could from school. So far, he’s pleased with how it’s worked out.

“We put age-appropriate expectations on the kids. I think they’re very mature for their age,” Schaefer said.

The family lives in a modest red ranch-style home they had built two years ago on the south side of Columbia, on 11 acres at the corner of the historic Douglass Farm. Abby, their 9-year-old mutt, circles the hilltop field every morning and shies away from the coyotes they frequently hear at night.

The Schaefer couple lived in an updated slave cabin on the farm when they first moved back from Vermont. It was small but fully modernized, and having lived in rural New England, the farm’s atmosphere suited their pace.

But the cabin felt too small after their first child was born. The Schaefers moved to a more modern development in Columbia and kept in touch with the Douglass family, from whom they eventually bought the land where their current house was built.

On an autumn Friday evening, Max and Wolf pack for an overnight scouting trip they’ll take the next day, and Lena turns white tissues into Halloween ghosts that she tapes onto the walls around the open-concept living area. An online music station featuring Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, not too loud, pipes lounge music from the living room, where wide windows offer a view of the autumn leaves in the surrounding woods.

Schaefer grew up the youngest of five siblings near St. Louis, in Town and Country. He describes his parents as both “great” and “fairly eccentric.” They traveled extensively as a family — Schaefer had been to all 48 continental states plus Canada and Mexico by the time he was 18.

Ambition

Schaefer took up bass guitar at 13 and continued to play through college at MU. His band, Third Uncle (named after a Brian Eno tune), performed original songs in clubs around Columbia in the mid- to late-1980s.

“Our music was kind of comparable to the Smiths, or Echo and the Bunnymen. But I like all kinds of music,” Schaefer said.

He said he thinks Columbia’s music scene has changed a lot over the years. “Back then, we’d form a band just for the sake of an opening gig, to play something like all 1950s country covers,” he said.

The Blue Note was still at its original location on Business Loop 70 when Schaefer started working there. By the time he left town for law school, he had worked his way from doorman to bartender to manager.

“It was so narrow behind the bar that there was really only room for three or four of us at a time,” Schaefer said. But customers would line up five or six deep. “You’ve got to be able to do multiple things at once,” he said.

Richard King, the owner, would tell them all to never make an empty-handed trip.

“If you’re going to the one end of the bar to get a bottle of beer, you better have something in your hands on the way down,” Schaefer remembered. It’s a lesson well-suited for someone with a constant need to move.

King described the scene as “one big happy family” in the Blue Note’s early days. “We all believed in the music,” he said. But he was not surprised when Schaefer left town to attend Vermont Law School.

“That’s what ambitious people do. They move on,” King said. The friends kept in touch, and they reconnected when Schaefer returned to Columbia.

If Schaefer’s move into law didn’t surprise King, his shift to politics did.

“I was stunned,” King said. He recalled the Christmas party in 2007 when Schaefer shared his intention to run for Senate as a Republican.

“But you’re not a Republican!” King remembered saying. The revelation underscored what their relationship had been, and would continue to be, about: Music. Friendship. Not politics.

Schaefer, unfazed by his friend’s surprise, asked him to put up a yard sign with his name on it. King agreed without hesitation.

“But that does mean I’ll have to put up an Obama sign right next to yours,” he warned. As long as his own name was up there, Schaefer said, he didn’t mind a bit.

Schaefer said he always has been fiscally conservative, and he has long held an interest in politics. After taking a year off from college to backpack through Europe, he returned to MU to study geopolitics. But the professor he had hoped would become his mentor retired, so Schaefer shifted to physical geography, instead. This eventually led to his interest in environmental law.

While in college, Schaefer met Stacia Wyrick. He eventually traded the Blue Note for law school and music for love. He sold his last guitar — a Rickenbacker 4001 — to buy an engagement ring, a square diamond from Betz Jewelers on Broadway. Soon after, the two were bound for Vermont.

Stacia Schaefer got into design at a small, elite publishing house. Kurt Schaefer earned a juris doctorate in 1995 and a master’s in environmental law, magna cum laude, in 1996.

Politics & policy

In many ways, Schaefer’s path of career and family provided the tempo for his evolving political identity.

“Lawyers deal with the law, which is just codification of public policy. They’re all amateur political experts. And every lawyer thinks they know how to run a campaign. And they don’t, by the way,” he said.

But he would learn this later. First, he had another surprise in store.

Schaefer had taken a job with the attorney general’s office, assuming he’d be placed in the environmental division. Instead, they placed him — over much protest — in criminal prosecution, which he was sure he wouldn’t like. Within two months, Schaefer was converted.

“You’re in court all the time, and it’s you and a judge and a jury, and you’re on your own,” he said. “I like the adrenaline. I like the fact that everything is live and spontaneous.”

The Schaefers started their family while he was working at the attorney general’s office, and as their children grew, he began to look at public policy in still another way. Their children attended a magnet school where the curriculum for each student was built around an Individually Guided Education plan, or IGE. If a kindergartner already understood math, he could study with the first-graders, for example.

“But with MAP testing and No Child Left Behind, that took away some of that flexibility,” Schaefer said. “Instead, all third-graders have to be operating on the same page. It makes you wonder whether it’s a good idea,” he said. “And it’s not.”

Rather than protest educational regulations, Schaefer wanted to be in a position to change them.

He likens his role as a senator to that of a prosecuting attorney: “You just have to learn the facts, remember them and craft that into an argument,” he said.

To learn those facts, Schaefer tunes his ear.

Kristin Sohl has worked with Schaefer and other legislators in her role as a child health advocate. She is a pediatrician and medical director of MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. She also created a program called Community Advocacy Through Resident Education, or CARE, which connects medical residents with legislators to talk about child health in Missouri.

“Legislators have said to me that plumbers unions have better advocacy in the statehouse,” she said. And when doctors do talk to lawmakers, she said, it tends to be about reimbursements or tort reform instead of health.

“The idea is to break the ice, to keep doctors from being nervous about talking to legislators down the road,” she said. Running the program keeps Sohl in touch with legislators, too.

She asks each legislator to meet about four times a year with one resident. Most of the time, she said, they’ll spend up to an hour. Schaefer has participated from the start, as have Chris Kelly and Stephen Webber, both Democratic Missouri House representatives for Boone County. Still also participated in the program early on, Sohl said.

“Kurt Schaefer has always been an absolute advocate for children,” Sohl said. “He meets with us, and is always willing to step up. He listens to residents and helps us navigate the Capitol and the legislative process.”

Strategy

Schaefer enjoys better name recognition now, as an incumbent, than he did in 2008.

At that time, he said, while he had plenty of connections in Jefferson City from his work at the attorney general’s office and at Lathrop and Gage, the people who knew him in town were mostly bar and restaurant owners. It wasn’t a bad group of people to know, he pointed out, because between them all, they know everybody else. Nevertheless, he had a lot of work to do.

At first, he couldn’t get funding from the Senate Majority Fund, so he raised about $100,000 himself from friends and family, he said. He eventually did get some financial backing from his party, but Graham’s campaign still outspent him.

“It’s not a good position to be in, because you don’t have the resources to get your message out,” he said. “And I don’t plan on finding myself in that position again anytime soon.”

It is certainly not a disadvantage Schaefer suffers this year. His campaign has brought in nearly $1 million as of the most recent campaign filings, compared to less than $250,000 by his opponent.

Money isn’t all that’s changed since 2008. Schaefer did some of his own canvassing then, going door-to-door to introduce himself and ask for votes in person. This year, he said, he has little time for it, between his law practice and ongoing work as the Senate Appropriations Committee chair.

Most legislators are done with state work when the session ends, but Schaefer stays in contact with the committee staff every day. He’ll often stop by the Capitol three times a week to consult on revenue and spending estimates or to get updates on interest rates for potential future bond issues, for example.

This level of involvement is a good match for Schaefer’s interests.

“Most senators are the political people, and their chief of staff is a policy wonk,” Schaefer said, but his relationship with Yancy Williams, his chief of staff, is just the opposite.

“I’m the policy person, and he’s the political person,” he said. Williams is on hiatus from Schaefer’s staff during the election in order to consult for the campaign.

If Schaefer wins re-election, term limits automatically would make his second term his last in the Senate. But that may not make this his final campaign.

“I’m just going to get through this election — knock on wood and don’t jinx it,” he said. “But I always like to do new things. So win or lose, I’m sure I’ll look at other things. We’ll see.”

Fearlessness drives Mary Still’s campaign for 19th District Senate seat

2085 words / The Columbia Missourian 

COLUMBIA — Mary Still is not afraid to lose.

“If I were afraid to lose, I would not have run in this race,” Still said last week.

The two-term 25th District state representative from Columbia opens the door of her paned-glass sunroom to let in a little stormy afternoon breeze. Still, a Democrat, is well aware of the odds she faces in her bid to unseat Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, in the 19th District.

Schaefer’s campaign finance war chest outweighs Still’s by a factor of almost 4 to 1. As one of 34 senators, his name recognition also outpaces that of Still, who is one of 163 representatives of the Missouri House. And her opponent’s chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful roles in the General Assembly, makes him all the more formidable.

But Still is not easily intimidated. And she is determined to have a Democrat represent Columbia in the Missouri Senate.

“I can better reflect the values of this community,” she said in a soft Arkansas drawl.

Campaign staffers, friends and volunteers are stationed in her spacious, light-filled kitchen. They work with their laptops here, or from desks at Still’s memorabilia-strewn campaign headquarters on Old Route 63 or walking door-to-door in neighborhoods around Columbia and Boone and Cooper counties.

This is Still’s third campaign for a seat in the legislature, and it’s clear this isn’t her first rodeo.

Decision

Still grew up in Fordyce, Ark., the seat of Dallas County in south-central Arkansas, where her father was the city’s prosecuting attorney for 10 years and the district attorney for about 20. Her mother became the first woman to serve on the local school board, Still said.

“I grew up working on Dad’s races,” she said.

Later, as a wife, Still campaigned again, for her husband. Russell Still, a partner in the law firm Harlan, Harlan and Still, served on the Columbia School Board from 1996 to 2005, including two years as president.

In 2007, Mary Still took early retirement from her work in the governor’s office. She meant to settle down. But four days later, then-state Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, announced her campaign for U.S. Congress, meaning she would not seek her 25th District seat again.

That got Still thinking.

At first, she had a hard time seeing herself in the role of an elected official. For decades she had been on another side — first as a journalist, later as communications director for then-Attorney General Jay Nixon and Gov. Bob Holden.

“And I just felt like, I know the issues. I had been in this community for 25 years. I know all the people,” she said. The other candidates for Baker’s seat were “fine,” Still said, but she thought she was a better fit.

She told her husband first. “He thought, ‘Yes!’ He was very supportive,” Still said. But a touch of reluctance persisted.

“I remember being kind of afraid to mention it to my friends. I just felt like they would think that was ridiculous,” Still said. “I just hadn’t seen myself in that role, and I didn’t think they had either, so I was a little shy about saying I was going to do it.”

A group of friends was at her house one night — Still loves to entertain, if not cook — when she shared her intention.

“They were supportive, too,” Still said. It was one of her friends, a former insurance commissioner who is also a musician, who suggested Still’s campaign slogan: “Still the one,” the title of a 1970s hit song by the band Orleans.

Still ran for Baker’s seat and won in 2008, then won re-election in 2010. Missouri’s legislative term limits allow up to four consecutive two-year House terms, so she could have run again to keep that position in 2012.

“I had a perfectly wonderful Democratic district that I was safe in. I doubt I would have had any opposition,” Still said. Instead, she aimed to unseat Schaefer.

Unafraid to lose, Still is basing her campaign on that fearlessness and the values behind it.

“I am not afraid to stand up for what is right. … This is not the be-all, end-all for me,” Still said. “I’m not going to be afraid to stand up to wealthy special interests. And I’m not going to be afraid to take a politically inconvenient vote. I’m not hand-tied by my party.”

Campaign 

It’s another blustery autumn day, but this time, the storm has passed.

Still, her campaign manager and two volunteers have split into two teams to canvass a west-Columbia neighborhood. They are grateful for the weather’s timing as clouds give way to blue skies and sun.

A friend drives and doles out the names and addresses of potential voters on their list. Still’s passenger-side door is open as soon as the car stops, and she’s halfway out before her friend has put the car in park. Still leans in.

“Where am I going? Who am I talking to?” She always has a name to say when anyone opens a door.

“This is my favorite part,” she says between houses.

Still enjoys the scenery — a pond by an old farmhouse, an English cottage garden, the way any remaining gray clouds make the autumn colors more vibrant. But mostly, she says, she likes talking to people because she always learns from them.

Like the teacher she met once who was just getting home from work at 7 o’clock on a Friday night. Or the young man today who’s just moved from Salt Lake City to take a job with Schneider Electric. Or the Muslim boy who expects his parents to vote but doesn’t say for whom.

Four years ago while canvassing, Still approached the home of an elderly man who was outside gardening. She introduced herself to Gene Ridenhour, a retired general surgeon and recent widower. The two got to talking — about family, about gardens — and have stayed in touch ever since.

“I was just very impressed with her principles and her demeanor and the way she discusses things. She’s just a good person,” Ridenhour said. “She goes to the point real quickly. She’s very sincere. She just represents a lot of good things about people.”

And they both like plants. “That’s one of the relationships we had in terms of sharing,” he said. “The flowers and bushes and shrubs and trees.”

Ridenhour, who does not consider himself a political animal, thinks of Still not as a politician but as a friend.

“I’m just getting to be an old man and worried about the future of the country,” he said. “I’m to the point where I dislike politicians because they make all sorts of crazy laws, and they’re all for themselves.”

“I don’t think Mary’s that kind of person. She has a husband who’s a lawyer, and they’re doing fine,” he said. “You can tell from her home that’s she’s just a classy lady. It’s so elegant but yet warm.”

Still and her husband raised their two girls, now grown, in a historic house near Columbia Country Club. At 3,751 square feet and with nine rooms, including four bedrooms, the large house is made cozy by patterned rugs, antique wooden furniture and cushioned couches. Crystal glasses are set out in a corner of the dining room, apparently ready to use.

“And it’s surrounded by nature,” Ridenhour said. He’s helping to keep it that way.

Still tells the story of her friend planting a row of cypress trees at her house two years in a row, because the first batch didn’t survive the summer drought.

“That is a man of great faith,” Still says. “Here he is, 80 years old, and he’s planting trees.”

Conviction 

During Still’s first term as a state representative, an MU graduate student in public affairs gave her a call. His name was Michael Butler.

“I want to work for you,” he said. Still was flattered, but said she didn’t have the budget to hire more staff. So Butler offered to volunteer.

“I said, ‘Come on down!’” Still recalled.

Butler ended up working as Still’s legislative assistant when the position opened up, and she credits him with teaching her how annual percentage rates work — the cornerstone of her efforts to reform the payday loan industry.

“Keeping up with her as an LA was challenging,” Butler said. “She’s energetic. She’s very organized. And she taught me the importance of media.”

Still is also forgiving, he said, recalling the time he sent the wrong letter to her press list.

“Oh, no!” she said over and over, hands to her head, as soon as they realized the error. But then she moved on.

Butler still cringes thinking of it, but Still said she can’t even remember it happening.

“She was empowering,” Butler said. “She still allowed me to send things out and had me call the media to give them a heads up about what had happened.”

In addition to showing him how to recover, Butler said, Still taught him how to recruit supporters and cosponsors for legislation. And ultimately, she inspired him to run for office last year. He is now, at 26, running unopposed to represent the 79th District in St. Louis, Butler’s hometown.

“I’m a person who believes one person can make a difference,” Still said.

Her closest inspiration is her own mother, whom she credits as having integrated the school system in Fordyce — an accomplishment highly unpopular with many people in the town.

“She was instrumental in making it happen in a very smooth way,” Still said, alluding to a “very interesting” story that she refuses to tell on the record.

“The first thing she had to do was get a white teacher to agree to teach in the black school.” Still’s mother eventually persuaded the minister’s wife to do so, using what Still calls an “unconventional approach.”

Beyond that, all she’ll reveal is that she learned her mother was “a very clever person.”

In Still’s own legislative work, there has been more opportunity for conviction than for compromise, she said, but she will compromise when it’s reasonable and genuine.

“I’m in the minority. And they’re not going to let me do anything,” she said. “I would love to be in the position to compromise. If they don’t want you to get anything passed, they’re not going to be working with you.”

Still has tried since she took office to reform the payday loan industry. She also has promoted a tax on tobacco. Her legislation didn’t pass, but it was very similar to Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot.

As a senator, the Democrat might hold more leverage than she has in the House. “I can filibuster!” she said.

The method of holding up a legislative hearing is only allowed in the Senate. But a filibuster only works until it’s overridden by a two-thirds majority of Senate colleagues.

Role of government 

Still has said repeatedly that the “deck” in Jefferson City is stacked against the middle class.

“We want to restore the contract between Missouri and working families,” she said at a League of Women Voters forum. “To do that, we must be fighting for higher wages, affordable education and opportunities for all — young women and minorities included. We must be fighting for jobs, not kowtowing to special interests.”

And herein lies one of the fundamental characteristics that distinguishes Still’s political philosophy from that of her opponent, she said: her perception of the proper role of government in society.

“I think you have to have an efficient and effective government, and you can get so small that you’re neither,” Still said.

She pointed out how much the Columbia area’s economy depends on state government funding. And she thought back to her father’s mother, who kept framed pictures of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy on the wall of her upstairs hall back in Fordyce.

Still’s paternal grandmother was widowed with seven children when Still’s dad was about 10. Her grandmother collected Social Security and was able to send Still’s two aunts to college. Her father and uncles pursued higher education through the GI Bill, Still said. Three went on to become lawyers. One became a doctor, and another pursued a career in the military.

“I see now, looking back, what a challenge that was for her to raise seven children as a widow,” Still said. “So you have to realize that government played an important role in that family’s life and their ability to earn an income, pay taxes and give back.”

Learning the Dream

Long-form profile as part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri’s next generation in challenging times / 4063 words / The Columbia Missourian

ST. LOUIS — As a boy, growing up and going to school in an African refugee camp, the only thing Ahmed Abdalla really knew about America was that he wanted to move there.

He was just a baby when his parents escaped genocide and famine in their native Somalia. They left family behind — some murdered, others simply refusing to budge. They fled on foot, finding their way to a series of temporary safe havens. Six years later and with as many more children, the Abdallas built the first home their children would know. They lived in Kakuma, a refugee camp in northwestern Kenya.

As an infant, Ahmed Abdalla’s parents fled Somalia. He was raised in a Kenyan refugee camp before being resettled in St. Louis, Mo. Now 20, Abdalla works as a doorman at a St. Louis hotel and attends college classes. (photo by Hilary Niles)

In Kakuma, America’s allure was as ubiquitous as heat. It came with no proof: Ahmed had never known a refugee to return to the camp; there were no newspapers or radios and little access to modern media. Still, this rumor of America saturated Ahmed’s childhood and the refugee culture. Dreaming of a new life in America wasn’t discussed. It was understood.

Ahmed was 13 and had spent seven years in Kakuma when his family was relocated to St. Louis. There, they began another winding journey through a series of apartments, jobs and the maze of laws, challenges, demands and possibilities that is the real America.

Seven more years after his dream of America came true, Ahmed — now 20 and a doorman at a posh downtown hotel — is still learning what it means to live here.

Ahmed’s story echoes both the enduring gratitude and steep learning curve that often follow refugee resettlement. All is new in this new world and not all as it seemed from afar. From what he knew to what he imagined to what he found, Ahmed discovered that dreams-made-real take some getting used to.

HOME

What Ahmed knew:

With their own hands, Ahmed’s parents stacked hundreds of sun-baked mud bricks into the shape of a one-room home. Under a bare metal roof, on blankets and carpets spread over an earthen floor, after extinguishing their single gas lantern, the family of eight slept. Rude as it was, this mud-brick hut was good fortune for the Abdallas, better than what many around them had.

Kakuma is home to about 90,000 refugees from the ravaged nations of Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea and Rwanda.

They came to Kakuma for shelter. What they got was insufficient by the camp authority’s own standards. Upon arrival at the vast camp, refugees are issued only plastic sheets to stake to the ground as shelter. Most spend their nights for years under these tarps, lucky to have them replaced when the plastic becomes threadbare. Temperatures inside the thousands upon thousands of makeshift plastic tents cook up to 110 degrees and higher on the hottest African days.

They came for food and water, but hunger, malnutrition and disease grow where nourishment doesn’t. Ahmed’s family lived in the second and most parched of three zones within Kakuma. In Kakuma 2, as it’s known, water use averages less than two gallons per person per day — not just for drinking but also for cooking and sanitation.

Again, Ahmed’s family was lucky. Cholera rates in Kakuma 2 were the highest among all three zones of the camp, at 15.9 cases per thousand refugees, but his family escaped the contagion.

Without more water, agriculture is not possible in the climate, and raising livestock is forbidden in the camp. Food rations, though robust for the region at 2,100 calories per person per day, were “grossly deficient” in nutrients, according to a 2000 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Selling and trading food rations carve away at the nutritional value of the refugees’ rations, yet people often must barter for kitchen goods and charcoal just to be able to cook what they can keep.

They came for safety, but refugee camps breed their own strains of violence. In Kakuma, exiles from at least eight nationalities, of various religions and competing for scarce essential resources, often clash with each other and the local Turkana people who inhabited the semi-arid desert before the refugee camp was created in 1992. Armed battles in 2003 displaced at least 14,000 residents of Kakuma 3 — nearly half its population — who abandoned their rows of plastic tents and mud huts for public shelters in the other zones. As of 2011, the U.N. Refugee Agency still forbade aid workers from staying at the camp past 6 p.m.

Ahmed’s family had come to Kakuma with one goal — to move again, to America. The chance for resettlement is a lottery only residents of the U.N.-operated camps can play.

What he imagined:

Growing up, Ahmed’s vision of America was one of beauty: tall buildings and streetlights. Fun: watching television in your house. The good life: wearing shoes and nice clothes, riding in cars, keeping food refrigerated.

These ideas came from the few movies, commercials and television programs Ahmed saw. They came from the vague notions that filtered through camp culture and took their own shapes according to each refugee’s dream.

Then one day, Ahmed heard: His family’s name was posted on the board on the camp’s main road. They would be interviewed and screened for resettlement.

“I wasn’t wearing no shoes, … but I was just running on the streets,” Ahmed recalls. He wanted to see the board for himself. “I saw my whole family, you know, the head of the household, which is my dad, my mom and me, my little brother, then the little ones.”

Refugees at Kakuma are not allowed to come and go as they please — a restriction prompted by both security and political concerns within Kenya. Since arriving seven years earlier, Ahmed had never stepped foot outside the camp. And his feet never touched the ground when he left: The family boarded a small plane at Kakuma 1, bound for Mombasa on Kenya’s east coast, along the Indian Ocean.

“I was just holding the seat. I wasn’t even looking down!” Ahmed laughs when he remembers that flight. “I even remember shutting my eyes, when the plane was going up, you know. I thought, this plane is going down!” His eyes and his smile still brighten with the memory.

In Mombasa, the Abdallas joined international travelers on a plane whose liftoff seemed even more implausible to Ahmed. “It was big, big, big, I don’t even know how big — maybe a football stadium,” he says, still smiling.

Kenya to Switzerland. Switzerland to New York City. New York to St. Louis. It was nighttime when the Abdallas landed at their dream. Ahmed slept through the final descent.

A Somali cab driver drove them to their new home. Through the taxi’s windows, Ahmed saw the lights for the first time.

“I was just saying, ‘Oh, wow, wow. Thank God. Thank –.” Laughter interrupts the reminiscence of relief.

What he found:

A bed. A pillow. Light switches. Everything about his first home in America was a wonder to Ahmed. All was luxury.

“The kitchen was working nice,” he says. “I mean there was hot water, cold water.”

The International Institute of St. Louis, one of three agencies in Missouri that contract with the state to provide refugee services, had secured a four-bedroom apartment for the Abdallas in the city.

In accordance with the “Minimum Required Client Goods and Services” that must be provided in the first 90 days of resettlement, one day’s worth of food stocked the kitchen. There was one plate, one bowl, one cup, one fork, one knife and one spoon per person. One towel per person. One set of sheets and blankets for each bed. Laundry detergent. An alarm clock.

At 13, Ahmed was the oldest of seven children. This left him with new responsibilities in St. Louis. He became an interpreter, facilitator and somewhat of a protector for his parents, who as adults hadn’t enjoyed the benefit of learning English in Kakuma’s schools. He would answer the phone at home, help them navigate the new city, translate utility bills.

“I was just excited that I was speaking English,” he says. “My parents were happy that their son could speak English for them.”

Ahmed liked helping. And his parents would need it as they applied for jobs, obtained social services, shepherded their children through school and moved four more times in the next several years.

Now 20, Ahmed is soft-spoken and often smiles when he talks. He is lean and tall. At the apartment he now calls home, on a warm, sunny day in early spring with thunderstorms brewing in the massive dark clouds drawing near, he is barefooted, wearing soccer shorts and a clean, bright white, untucked T-shirt.

This is Ahmed’s fifth apartment, which he shares with a half-brother.

His family is complex and extended. His father has three wives, as is still common in much of Africa; two of them — including Ahmed’s mother — have resettled in the U.S. Ahmed’s mother and her six younger children moved last year to Cape Girardeau, where it is less expensive to live.

Ahmed’s father works four days a week in a sewing factory in St. Louis; he splits his time between his sons’ apartment there and his wife’s in Cape Girardeau. Another of Ahmed’s half-brothers, that brother’s Burundian wife and their two young children also occasionally stay at the apartment; at other times, they stay at their own apartment near a downtown hotel where the brother works.

On a midday in March, it is just over 80 degrees and the parking lot outside doubles as a gathering place — one where Ahmed does not socialize. Reggae music pumps from one car where a handful of men and women hang out. Two other men, one from Honduras and one from Argentina, both of whom came to St. Louis looking for roofing work, smoke cigarettes and drink cans of beer in a van with the blinds down on the windows but the side door open.

The neighborhood beyond appears occasionally optimistic — a garden here and there, sidewalk construction across the street — but largely abandoned. Windows are broken, a burnt porch looks as if it’s been falling down for years. A young man in jeans and a baseball cap trudges down the road, head back, guzzling from a 40-ounce can wrapped in a brown paper bag.  Drained, he pitches it to the pavement without breaking his pace.

Sweet, musky incense suffuses the second-floor apartment, in stark contrast to the layers of stale and fresh cigarette smoke permeating the halls outside. The apartment walls are clean and the linoleum floor swept, as opposed to the kick-stained stairs, the drip-stained entrance walls or the smudge-stained, narrow windowpane inside the building’s front door.

If it weren’t for incense, you might think this apartment’s tenants had just moved out. The pale walls are blank. The floor is bare, save for a small, simple woven rug by the living room window, where Ahmed has placed two folding chairs. There is no couch. There is no table. No lamp. Not a shred of domesticity, save a curtain, to be seen.

It is brightened only by sunlight from the east-facing window. The lights are off, and Ahmed’s soft voice can finally be heard when a neighbor silences some floor-rattling rap music that’s heavy on bass and f-bombs.

“We live inside,” Ahmed says, pointing toward a small kitchen and down an interior hallway toward their bedrooms.

From the living room’s open window, the polyester curtain, bursting with a pattern of giant red tulips, blows lightly into the room. The curtain softens the view onto a scarcely green courtyard at the center of four more brick and vinyl buildings just like his.

WORK

What Ahmed knew:

“Scantily monetized” is how a U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees report in 2000 described Kakuma. Such little money makes employment in the refugee camp a complicated prospect, with no illusions of self-sufficiency.

Some adults earn “incentive pay” of $40 to $90 per month by working for humanitarian organizations. Ahmed’s father started a store to capitalize on what little movement of goods and money there was. Dependence on handouts and international aid was an assumption perpetuated by the conditions and restrictions within the camp.

What he imagined:

Ahmed assumed he would work and save money in America. This part of his dream was only partially informed.

Once in the U.S., refugees have 90 days to start working or find other sources of income to provide for themselves, according to the International Institute. Within six months, they must begin repaying their travel loans, which can run up to $1,500 per person.

“I wasn’t expecting all these bills,” Ahmed says. “I know you have to pay rent. But I just thought … your house, it’s yours, so nobody’s gonna come for you. … You just have to pay for everything, you know. That’s one thing I learned.”

Besides rent, Ahmed was introduced to water bills. Car insurance and registration. Phones and the fees that come with them.

He tries to remember the word for when you buy something for, say $2.99, but you have to pay extra on top of the cost.

“Taxes!” he slaps his knee in excitement. “Yeah. … Nobody told me about those things. I just have to learn, you know.”

What he found:

It’s Friday night, and almost everyone who asks Ahmed for anything at the Union Station Marriott in downtown St. Louis is some degree of drunk.

Wedding revelers and wrestling fans in town for the NCAA Championships vie for the attention of a black-clad cocktail waitress weaving between low tables and leather chairs. At the center of the former railway station’s Grand Hall, the swanky hotel lounge is dwarfed under sweeping archways that rise to 65 feet at their peak. Art glass windows, fresco paintings and gold-leaf detailing surround the interior of this castle-like stone relic of a building.

Guests with cell phones pull up a seat on the edge of knee-high planters, swig Corona from bottles and shout over the din that reverberates through the Grand Hall like the rumble of trains must have 120 years ago. Constructed in the 1890s, Union Station once served more than 100,000 rail passengers a day. Now rooms start at $169 per night —$239 on weekends.

Ahmed’s uncle, who also works here, helped him get his job as a doorman and bellman in October 2011.

What’s the best place to get oysters, a guest wants to know. Where are the ballrooms? How do I get to the Hard Rock Cafe? What time does the concert start? Ahmed arrives at work more than an hour early to find out what’s going on in the city and read the newspaper as preparation for fielding any questions that might come his way.

Spilling out of the hotel in rushes and dribbles, guests need directions, cabs and — they may not know this yet ­— a bit of entertaining banter. Rules of engagement change outside. Away from the front desk and out in the fresh air, doormen and guests alike are more talkative.

Doormen make better tips than bellmen, Ahmed says, because they have more chances to do things for people. And it’s not just guests that doormen manage.

A line of taxis populates the street shoulder that leads to the hotel entrance. Drivers, restaurant owners and some who trade in more illicit services are known among travelers the world over for giving kickbacks to doormen who send business their way.

But the system at the Union Station is just that: a system. Guest needs a ride, doorman blows his whistle, first taxi in line pulls forward and the rest of the line inches up. Most of the time.

Tonight, a very drunk man wants to hire the taxi that has just pulled up with a carload of passengers for drop-off. But according to the system, it’s not that taxi’s turn — a point Ahmed gently tries to make.

“I’ve already called the taxi for you. He’s right here,” Ahmed says, pointing to the cab driver pulling into place. But the man is not looking. The man is opening the door of the arriving taxi; the passengers inside look surprised.

Ahmed tries to negotiate a complex matrix: the drunk man who wants his ride and wants it now; the drop-off taxi driver who might get lucky enough to score two fares back-to-back; the pick-up driver next in line who might lose his fare. Ahmed shifts on his feet. He calculates.

Then he tells the pick-up driver with the empty cab to hold on, sticks his hands in his pockets and waits. He glances over his shoulder now and then, checking on the drunk man, who gets into the cab as soon as the arriving passengers get out. And in no time, another guest walks into the night, looking for a ride. This time, the problems solve themselves.

More guests emerge from the hotel, asking for a late-night place to eat. Ahmed pulls a short stack of coupons out of his pocket and suggests an Irish pub down the block, but they don’t take the bait.

It’s a trick of the trade that Ahmed recently learned from his uncle. He’ll get a certain amount of referral money for each party who brings in a coupon with his name on it. Ahmed thinks the restaurant pays out once a month, but he’s not sure, and he doesn’t know how much they pay. He hasn’t sent anyone there yet.

Shyness is not a lucrative trait in this business.

EDUCATION

What Ahmed knew:

Back in Kakuma, children were taught math and science, but English and the Quran were the most important things to learn.”We weren’t worried about history,” Ahmed says. His family’s history, like that of all the refugees, floated through the air, in the conversations of grownups. It was as ubiquitous as the dust kicked up from the scatter and shuffle of bare feet on scorched dirt roads. It was nowhere and everywhere.

“We were just worried about learning English,” he says. “How to speak English and how to write English and how to read English.”

To learn the Quran, he attended a Duksi, as religious schools are called in his native Bantu language. Ahmed remains religious — a call-to-prayer app sounds five times a day on his iPhone — but he does not miss the Duksi. Recitation was a staple in the classroom, but most students “didn’t know how to read in our head,” Ahmed says, talking about the hard chore of memorization. “I can read while I’m looking, but I can’t read if you cover (the words) for me.”

Nor does he miss the Duksi teacher. “That teacher was mean. … Everybody used to get beat, no matter who you are,” he says.

One day, the oldest boy at the school fought back, saying he hadn’t done something the Duksi teacher accused him of. “Not the biggest, but the oldest boy in the place,” Ahmed remembers.

“It was just so funny because we want the teacher to get beat, you know,” Ahmed laughs. “We had (the boy’s) back because he was standing up for us. Because we was so young. We can’t say nothing, you know, he (the teacher) just gonna do whatever he want to us.”

The teacher won; the defiant student was thrown out of the class. Two days later, his parents brought him back to school, and the routine continued.

What he imagined:

For his life in America, Ahmed imagined what he could not have in Kakuma: college. He hopes also to have a family here, but family is where his goals would have stopped in Africa.

“I’d probably have a son — I mean baby,” he laughs. He will take what God gives him. “Live in my own house, you know. Take care of family. Forget about college, forget about education, all that. Just try and live.”

Those were his old dreams. As he talks, an approaching storm has arrived. Lightning smacks close by. Ahmed closes the window, calming the curtain and keeping the sill dry, as thunder rumbles.

Here, he imagines a different future. It, too, involves a family, but in a sort of hybrid Bantu-American tradition. Marriages are still arranged, he says, but more and more Somali girls are holding out to marry “the right one … because they start listening to this crap.” He laughs — a little bold, a little shy — and glances down while he sips mango juice from a tall glass.

The chance for girls to finish high school before having children, to have a say in whom they marry, is as hard for Ahmed to get used to as his own new dreams.

“Sometimes I (think) about becoming a pilot,” he says. “Or an artist,” because he likes to draw. Or a photographer. But then, he wonders, should he pursue something less ambitious, more attainable?

Ahmed tries not to think too hard about his future right now because it’s so uncertain. His goal is to stay afloat with work and continue to improve his English, so that he’ll be ready for his future when it arrives.

What he found:

One familiar comfort for Ahmed in America was soccer. They played it quite differently at his new high school in St. Louis, but they played it, and that’s what mattered.

At the camp in Kakuma, Ahmed and his friends would improvise their own field: Impromptu boundaries marked with the shirts they would take off their backs, goals staked in the ground with two sticks where the front posts would go. They couldn’t conjure a net, so successful goals sent the boys running to chase down the ball.

Their soccer ball was also a feat of imagination: plastic grocery bags bound together with rubber bands. Lots of them. Thick ones. The rubber bands were how they got the  ball to bounce.

Indoctrinated into the sport in this way, Ahmed was used to kicking the ball quite hard to give it air and distance, but he’s too modest to say whether he could kick harder than the American kids he played with here.

Now that he’s graduated, Ahmed still enjoys the sport. He plays with Bantu friends, and they invite others to join them — Liberians, Mexicans. “Yeah, we play a lot,” Ahmed says. Even on this rainy day, he’s hoping to sneak in a muddy game.

Fellow refugees make up a lot of Ahmed’s friends. His girlfriend is Somali. Even many of his co-workers at the Union Station Marriott are immigrants – not uncommon in hotels around the country.

This extends a cultural stratification that he also found in high school. The immigrants and Americans didn’t mix much, he says. Perhaps it was culture. Perhaps it was language.

Despite the emphasis on learning English in Kakuma — and his usefulness helping his parents navigate this new land — fluency remains elusive.

Ahmed was optimistic after graduating from high school. But in 2010, after starting at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, he found that he couldn’t keep up with the language and the rigors of college.

Now he attends Forest Park Community College, “where most foreign kids go,” he says, hoping to transfer back to the university after a couple years. He doesn’t have a major yet. For now, his classes simply help him get up to par so he can pursue his education.

Success and struggle mingle. He passed two of the classes he took last fall. But he failed grammar, so he had to retake that this spring. And he read four books in the fall for a reading class. But he lost a fifth — a biography of a basketball player — that he had checked out of the library of his own accord. The $50 fine has scared him off from checking out another.

Instead, he stays in the library to read one or two pages at a time when he’s on campus. He recently started a new book.

“I don’t know the title but it’s about Martin Luther King,” Ahmed says. “Like, how African-Americans were back then. That’s the kind of book I am reading.”

He had never heard of King before or of the Civil Rights movement. The only American name he knew in Kakuma was President George W. Bush. The only American event: 9/11.

This young man who was never taught the history that displaced his family, and who waits for a future he can’t quite imagine, is slowly learning the past of his new home.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Sarah “Jonesey” Johnson

Interview as part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri’s next generation in challenging times / 3734 words / The Columbia Missourian 

ST. LOUIS — Sarah Johnson, 38, is happily employed at Left Bank Books, an independent bookstore with two locations in St. Louis. She goes by “Jonesey” and lives alone with her two cats, Ethel and Boris. I interviewed Jonesey at Pi, a restaurant in the Central West End, across the corner from Left Bank Books, where she was headed to work later that morning. She blogs at www.joneseythewordslinger.blogspot.com. She tells her story.

woman between two stacks of books looks up

It’s a really odd little story. I realized when I was 34 that what I wanted to do with the rest of my life was to be a librarian. And I wanted to learn how to fix books. And I really wanted to do that in places like after Hurricane Katrina, and after the flood in Iowa. Libraries fall through a lot of monetary aid cracks, yet they are an incredibly important part of any community.

They’re part of the legitimacy of communities because they provide a sense of history when you get to books and records and the things that prove your right to exist in a place. Things like deeds, legal records, the original maps people drew to define the space you live in. And because our culture is so legalistic, we need the paper trail.

Humans express themselves visually, and one way of visually expressing yourself is in the written language. It also provides cultural legitimacy in the sense that other people like me have written books about the things I am experiencing. So that puts me on a spectrum. And if I’m on a spectrum, then I exist. If I can place myself somewhere measurable, then I have a history. If I have a history, then I have a present. If I have a present, then I have a future.

I have one younger sister, five-and-a-half years younger. She is married to her second husband. They live in Utah. She has a 13-year-old daughter by her first marriage and a 7-year-old boy by her second. My niece lives here in Eureka with her father and stepmother.

I figured I’d come to St. Louis. I wanted to be here while my niece went through high school. I have no children. I’ve been married and divorced twice. I live with cats. I knit. I read books. I’m really happy.

Growing up

I grew up in the most southwestern neighborhood in Chicago. It’s called Beverly/Morgan Park. The neighborhood was a very welcoming Irish Catholic Democratic neighborhood.

I lived, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks, even though both of my parents went to work in offices, had titles, wore ties. There was a lot of the standard husband who worked in a union job, had done his apprenticeship. Probably lived within three or four blocks of where his parents lived. Wife stayed home with the kids. Now, staying home with the kids means running around after them and taking them to school. But that was most everybody in the neighborhood, except for us.

My dad’s from Lincoln, Nebraska. My mom’s from Blencoe, in western Iowa. It was a safe neighborhood that had a lot of families and a lot of churches. And, that was the deal. That was where we bought.

Libraries

I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, for 12 years. I was working at the public library there at the time, and one of my co-workers and I, who were really good friends, started thinking about how to run a library well. You have to answer the question, what is a library? Which is a really, really big and difficult question it turns out nobody actually knows the answer to — even though everybody acts like they do. There are so many answers.

A library is a place where the books are. A library is a place where you go to use the Internet. A library is the place where you look up things. Where you ask people questions. Where you meet with people from your community. Where you study. The best definition that I’ve ever heard is that a library is the place where you have access to information and therefore can gain knowledge. Because a library isn’t really about books anymore.

Now I work in a bookstore. I don’t believe that bookstores, especially independent bookstores, are just about books. I believe that they are about access to (good) books.

Especially a place like Left Bank or an independent bookstore, this isn’t about convenience. We don’t have Westerns and romance novels and a lot of the (popular) series. We have a lot of really good books that are written by people you might not have heard of. Books that would be harder to find in Walmart, in a grocery store, or the newsstand, or your local school library.

poster reading "Indie Booksellers Hold Up the Sky" hangs next to a shelf of mystery books
Left Bank Books in St. Louis (photo by Rick Agran and Hilary Niles)

I love what happens when you open a book, and your world just shifts.

I’m reading a travelogue right now called “All the Roads Are Open,” by Annemarie Schwarzenbach. In 1939, she and a companion drove across Afghanistan from Switzerland. They drove this old Ford, and they drove through Iran, which was still Persia, parts of it anyway, and through Afghanistan, into India. She describes the Hindu Kush, and I have to work to remember that I’m not in the mountains when I’m reading it.

The thing I really enjoy about good writing — that moment when you are sucked into a book — is that I am allowed to experience someone else’s confident and clear perspective that I might never have had otherwise. I am challenged to leave my own perspectives behind. I think that the more we narrow our world, the more barren it becomes.

And I think that that’s something that’s very easy to do when bestsellers are all that are thrown at you, when the newest and the shiniest are all that are available.

That’s like so many of the messages that we get about fitting into a very well-defined mold. And that path leads you to … some nirvana of success? I don’t know. I’ve never been able to figure that one out.

I haven’t lived with a television for a really long time. In Lincoln I had a roommate who was like a cable addict. So that was eight months in 2007. And then before that, it had been, three years? I had a television that was hooked up to a DVD player, so we watched DVDs.

But I don’t take the news. I don’t take newspapers. I don’t buy them, I don’t subscribe to them. I don’t pick them up. I will occasionally read The Wall Street Journal. And that’s always an interesting experience because I get really angry. I feel like the news-reading public are being told things that are not justified. I always wonder, what aren’t we being told? I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I do think there are times when you look at the paper or you listen to the news and why is that senator so important today? What really happened that that guy or that woman is so important, instead of something else going on?

Particularly because it is an election year, and I really despise what happens when people start slinging mud at each other. I think they become very small, and these are the people who want the biggest job in the country. They are so diminished in their behavior that I don’t even want to be part of the process. Even though really, I do want to be part of the process! Because I do believe in active involvement in a democracy. I think that’s the only way that it functions. So election years always challenge me.

Family

My dad was a geographer for the Corps of Engineers. My mom worked in the training and implementation department of an insurance company, and they trained people how to use computers. My dad quit the Corps and got his MBA, became a travel agent. Then my mom’s department was disbanded. But she had always loved teaching people how to use their computers, so she started her own business.

One night she was overbooked, so my dad took a class of hers. And he just got bit. He loved the teaching, decided that was what he wanted to do. So in 1992, he moved to Wichita, Kan., with my sister. My mom stayed in Chicago with the business and my dad got his master’s degree in anthropology at Wichita State University, and taught his way through.

I moved to Lincoln in ’98. I was 25. In ’99 my dad, my sister and my niece moved to Lincoln. My dad started his doctoral program. He started in anthropology, but he ultimately got his degree in geography from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And is now teaching!

My mom’s business kept going. We finally sold the house in Chicago so she got this little apartment in La Grange Park, Ill. We got this delighted phone call from her, right after we moved her. The message was, “It’s 70 degrees below zero with the wind chill and I’m not paying heat on an eight-room house!”

Then in 2003 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. So she moved to Nebraska and lived with my dad again. They’ve been married for 43 years. And they’re really good friends. They get each other. And so yeah, they lived apart. My mom’s convinced that’s one of the reasons that it worked, was that they were both only children, so the idea of being alone was not awful. And it didn’t challenge the fundamentals of their marriage in any way.

I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do what I wanted to do in Lincoln. My career, socially — I had just hit stall there.

So I asked my folks if I could live with them for a year once my dad got his degree and they went to wherever he was going to go and teach. They said sure, which was just an amazing gift. We ended up moving to this small town in northwestern Missouri — 11,000 people. Maryville, Mo.

That’s a really small town. A lot of parks. No sidewalks. There were like six (independently owned) restaurants, and we went to all of them within the space of a month. Everything else was fast food. It was horrifying. The farmers market was a joke.

It’s a culture of poverty. During the Depression, people worked really hard. They didn’t know they were poor. Everybody had a garden, nobody had shoes. Everybody rode horses to school. I volunteered for the historical society for a little while, watching videos of interviews they had done with people who had lived during the Depression and World War II. They were just living, surviving, making it happen, with their families, going to church, going to school. They had a very uncomplicated moral code. And people lived by it.

I’m sure that there was separation based on class and what not, but these people were not lazy! I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if it was the car. I don’t know if you can point to any one sort of governmental thing. I don’t know if you can point to any one economic thing. But I do know that the city now, just Kawasaki and Energizer are the two big employers outside of the university.

The separation between town and gown is palpable. There is a huge population of south Indian students, from Hyderabad. And the town has done nothing to welcome them. The only grocery stores where you can get Indian food is in Kansas City.

Religion

I grew up in this Congregationalist church. It was interdenominational. It was a covenant church, and so that meant that we had a covenant with each other, and with God.

The neighborhood that I grew up in was predominantly Catholic, St. Barnabas Parish. There was a Unitarian church up the hill, there was a Good Sam church that met in the Methodist Church. There were Episcopalian churches. There was every Protestant denomination that you could think of. So my experience of religion started as my experience of church. I left the church sort of slowly because it just seemed really hypocritical. I saw my parents doing what they said they believed in, and I saw other people’s parents not.

My parents said that they believed in charity, and they volunteered to teach people English. We bought Christmas presents and brought them to poor people. They walked the walk. Like anybody, they’re imperfect. But still there was this idea of consistency. And they were really good hosts and they were always willing to talk to people, which was something that I saw other members of my church not doing.

Then when I was 16, I had accidentally dyed my hair purple. It was supposed to be burgundy. And it was Lent.

Sign reading "more books downstairs" hangs from the ceiling of a bookstore
Left Bank Books in St. Louis (photo by Rick Agran and Hilary Niles)

So we’re at Lenten dinner. I’m around people I’ve known since I was 6 years old. And I go sit at a table with some of them, and they did not acknowledge me. They wouldn’t look at me, they wouldn’t make space for me. It was like I didn’t exist.

I spent a few years being really angry with Christians. And then I got over it. Sort of slowly. It was sort of a series of things that happened, beginning with a very real sense of hypocrisy in my own behavior. There was this sort of parental voice in the back of my head that you don’t really want to listen to but that you know is saying the right thing. I mean just being angry at somebody for having faith. What’s the point?

There was also this lack of understanding. I was not trying to reach out and find out what people actually believed. I was labeling them — based on a label that they had chosen. Which is incredibly discompassionate.

And then the mother of a friend passed away. She was diabetic. She went into a coma and never came out. And I really, really liked her. She was always really sweet to his friends because he was an odd kid, like me, and so didn’t really have a ton of friends. And another person had passed away from my church. He had been really good to all of us kids, and he had died the day after my friend’s mom died. So I flew back to Chicago and ended up going to two funerals in one day.

The first service was for the man at my church. He had lived a good long life and he was involved in everything. And we had all known him. He was nice. He was thoughtful. He knew all the kids. But the service was this sterile recitation of his accomplishments.

Our religion was defined almost as “not Catholic.” That was as close as you ever got to understanding what your relationship to Christ was supposed to be. It was like, “You are not Catholic. So, whatever a Catholic believes, you don’t!” Which is really interesting to me because we lived in a Catholic neighborhood. We all had Catholic friends. But we didn’t really understand them.

We actually had a fairly well integrated neighborhood. The big groups were black and white. But because of how I experienced the neighborhood, to me the big groups were Protestant, Catholic and Baptist. In my mind, you were defined by what church you went to on a Sunday morning, and what youth group you went to on a Wednesday afternoon. And whether or not you sang in choir. That was how I parsed everybody.

Now, if I define people, it’s by the books they read. But that’s only in the store, and that’s only when I get to know people.

I define people based on whether they shop for convenience or for value. I take public transport, I walk. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a credit card. My experience of life is incredibly different than 95 percent of the people that I meet, just because I don’t experience advertisements, television shows or red lights.

Divorce

I ended up on the bottom end of women-who-get-divorced statistics. I owned a house out in Nebraska that I eventually lost. The house foreclosed in 2005. I was able to afford the house with my husband when I bought it. The mortgage we got, the interest rate, everything, that wasn’t the problem. It was the other stuff that was involved and we couldn’t sustain. We didn’t know enough. We shouldn’t have bought the house. Shouldn’t have been married!

But, whatever. I was the one who had the job. He had just started his own business. So the bank gave me the mortgage. When “we” split up and “we” lost the house, I lost the house. And I didn’t have a car. So when I kicked him out, I lost the car.

Left Bank

I love this job. I have no intention of leaving. And I’m about to get benefits. Health, dental and vision.

My credit score is something that I’ve been thinking about in a very real way because this year, the foreclosure drops off. But I still have student loan debt that I have to deal with and some other little things.

I had a job for three years as a secretary at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. So I had retirement built up, but when I quit that job, it was right around the time I was getting my divorce, and I was just so burnt out and I needed a break, and so I cleaned out my retirement and just took care of myself for six months. But that was it: that was the only time I have ever even had a meaningful retirement account.

It’s small steps. And I’m sort of starting from square one except for that I’m actually really happy in what I do, and the people that I work with, and the city that I’m in.

I didn’t expect to love this city. I didn’t expect to find this job. I expected to work as a temp in offices for a couple of years, build up some savings, pay off some of my debts, get a fancy-schmancy apartment, you know. Be stylish. And start taking book-binding classes. Then learn how to restore books. That’s a slow process; books are not fast. And then this came along.

It shifted everything and slowed it down a little bit more. But it gave me a place to actually start from. Build relationships and then build a life that is compassionate in a way that I want it to be compassionate.

I recognize that I don’t share the same future ideals that a lot of people do. I don’t necessarily see security in a home, because I have lost a home. I don’t see security in a car, because it’s so transient. I don’t see security in money. And I don’t necessarily even want a whole lot of security because I feel like you give up a lot.

A lot of people give up the freedom to make their own decisions. About with whom they’re going to be friends, what they’re going to do with their money. About where they go and what they do.

When you own a home, it’s the thing that you do to establish yourself and to be safe. You have to ensure that the house is safe, one way or the other. Which means that you might or might not be effectively using your skills. Or happy at all. Or healthy at all, because you’re working for security, in a job that you know is not going to go away in order for you to have a home that provides you with security and a car that means that you don’t have to take the bus, so you are secure, you are safe from being late for everything. Because you have your own means of transportation!

And in a larger context, you have to support policies that allow you to maintain your sense of security. You don’t want somebody taking your job, you don’t want somebody taking your children’s job. You don’t want somebody taking your tax dollars.

People are dying all over the world because of wars that are fought in order to secure access to resources like copper, magnesium, rare earths, oils, things that are used in all of our stuff, in order to allow us to maintain our lifestyles. As if that’s the best, like we have the right.

And that was where I came to ultimately with this idea of the American Dream. My real problem with it is not that people want to have a better life for their children than they had for themselves. Not that they want to pass on their ideas of democracy and of freedom. It’s that, in this country, the messages we get require that everything be about winning. And there is no such thing as winning without somebody else losing.

view across the corner from the bookstore, lit up at night
Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo. (photo by Rick Agran and Hilary Niles)

Living the dream

Creative resourcefulness and community. That’s my dream. To be a part of a community, to be allowed to be creative in that community, a positive member of it, and to be resource responsible. It comes from what my grandmother told me, how my parents were raised, how I was raised. We had a garden in Chicago. They canned. My parents both sewed. We read books, talked to each other. We watched television one night a week.

At no point did I feel like we were not being American. I never felt like we were doing something subversive. It was only when I got into the outside world that I realized that, apparently, that was wrong!

Take responsibility for your own action. That is something that I would really like to see. If you want things to change, you change them. For yourself. Because nobody else is going to do it for you.

We have the right to make so many of our own decisions, and yet we don’t do it, at all. What we buy. What news we listen to. What books we read. How we read them. The music we listen to.

So that’s where I ultimately get to: I have the right to define my life in a way that doesn’t make me somebody I don’t respect. In theory, that’s the American Dream, right? I get to define my own life.

Hustle and dream

Work profile as part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri’s next generation in challenging times / 547 words / The Columbia Missourian 

ST. LOUIS, March 4 — Eugene “EZ” Lacy assesses potential customers as they walk by his father’s flea market stall in a converted storage building in Jennings, a municipality in northeastern St. Louis County. A middle-aged woman with long hair, meticulously delicate eyebrows and frosted pink lips comments on the panther carpet hanging behind him.

“You like that?” Lacy asks. “You can take it home right now for $35.”

Eugene Lacy talks on a cell phone at his father's flea market stall
Eugene “EZ” Lacy helps at his father’s flea market stall on weekends. (photo by Hilary Niles)

She stops. She’s already got one at home, she explains, and the mirror that goes with it. She points to the two black panthers on their haunches, facing each other almost in silhouette against a golden-yellow would-be sun on black background. The carpet hangs sideways next to one with a lion, and another with a big cat.

“You can take this one home to have in case something happens to the one you got now,” Lacy says.

She’s not buying it. He tries again.

She’s friendly, but declines. She’s had hers for eight years, the woman explains, and it’s still in perfectly good shape. She doesn’t need a back-up. Her husband, tall with graying hair, smiles and agrees. They walk away.

Lacy is somewhat disappointed, but proud of his effort — a philosophy he tries to apply to whatever he’s doing.

“You’re never gonna get there,” he says. “You just keep trying. You’ll never get to the top. There’s always gonna be someone ahead of you, or right behind you.”

Eugene, 22, grew up in St. Louis County. He now lives in Moline Acres with his wife and two daughters, both younger than 4. For now, he is the sole breadwinner for his family, working full-time as a diesel mechanic.

He helps with his father Hank’s two businesses on top of that: Get Rich Records, a recording studio and record label, and Hood Depot, headquartered at this flea market.

They get people to their flea market booth by advertising custom business cards – 100 for $5. They make cards for hairstylists, DJs, handymen, churches, you name it. Once people come looking for cards, there’s more to buy.

The double-wide stall is a slightly cock-eyed array of blank CDs, wireless keyboards, rolling papers, sweatshirts, knitted caps, a hair pick, a piercing gun and body jewelry. Computer and printing equipment fill the shelves on one side of the stall, while a laminator anchors the other corner.

photo of a tattoo that reads "Get Rich Records" around an image of a fistful of cash

For the dozens of businesses lining the aisles of the market, little more than chicken wire serves as a ceiling. During business hours, the metal doors remain open, rolled up amid a mingled mayhem of rap and soul music, incense and bartering, bickering, blustering voices from neighboring stalls.

Eugene Lacy’s dream is to “make it big” as a music producer, but he knew it would be smart to have something to fall back on, especially with a family to provide for.

“If you think you’re succeeding, that’s when you slack and you drop off the map,” he says. It’s active striving that is Lacy’s American Dream. “Doing anything you want to be successful in,” he says.

Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Barack Obama. These are his models of success. They’re the type of people “who can turn something into more than what it started out to be, rather than stay at one pace or one speed,” Lacy says.

Finding the right space

Brooks Yang in front of book shelves at a bookstore reading

Brief profile as part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri’s next generation in challenging times. /539 words / The Columbia Missourian 

ST. LOUIS — Brooks Yang may tell you that she’s “kind of doing nothing” these days. Don’t believe her.

Yes, the 23-year-old Princeton grad has moved back in with her parents after graduating last spring. No, she’s not working. And no, she doesn’t have plans to get a job in her field of study, architecture.

Brooks Yang in front of book shelves at a bookstore reading
Brooks Yang at a book reading by Keija Parssinen of her debut novel “The Ruins of Us” on Feb. 19 at the Central West End location of Left Bank Books in St. Louis. (photo by Rick Agran)

In fact, she wants to be a filmmaker — a writer/director, specifically. She’s waiting to hear back from graduate programs for directing and screenwriting. When I met her in February, she was helping two installation artists with box office venue design for the upcoming True/False Film Fest in Columbia. She was also organizing a reading list for herself and taking two classes at MU, in accounting and economics — “to try out thinking in those ways,” she said.

Yang is making plans — and decisions.

She spent the first part of college “making the distinction between what it’s like to be good at something and liking being good at it. Like math,” she laughed.

She discovered her passion for art while in school: “When you feel like art has to be a huge part of your life, it’s hard, obviously, to live on that. But … coming to the realization I couldn’t live without it also is really interesting.”

Having studied planning in her architecture program, the American Dream is something Yang has given some thought to recently. It makes her think of property, Fannie Mae, a mortgage and a spot in the suburbs.

“For architects and urbanists, that’s a really difficult dream that’s been propagated among Americans, because it means you have these big spread-out cities, and it causes all these … green issues,” Yang told me. “And what seemed like such a dream — Los Angeles is a perfect example — today has become in a lot of ways sort of nightmarish.”

It surprises Yang now to see some of her friends from childhood settling down in these ways. “They maybe have a kid, and yeah, they’ve got that little house. They’ve got that spread-out suburbia kind of thing,” she said. “I think it caters to that dream that a lot of people still really hold to be true.”

All that said, Yang admits she would like to own property eventually — or at least be anchored and have room enough for a dog. That will come later, though. For now, she knows it’s a luxury to take the year off, and she’s making the most of it.

“But I did really struggle,” she said, recalling a graduation speech by New York Times columnist and author David Brooks she heard last year.

“I remember thinking he was confronting the idea that so many people my age have always been told, you know, follow your heart, do what you love and find yourself. But I’ve found that to be really difficult and that a lot of people in my generation find that difficult because it’s so self-focused. You don’t have a very good concept of the outside world, and … in some ways you don’t even know where to put yourself. … You know, maybe some people should be thinking more like, ‘Where do I fit into the bigger picture?’ as opposed to like, ‘What do I want to do?'”