Weekly Review — September 11, 2001, 12:00 am

Weekly Review

Bush Administration officials contradicted previous statements that they would let China build up its nuclear arsenal if Beijing would simply drop its objections to the missile-defense boondoggle. Russia was beginning to approach the subject with a certain irony. “If they have the money to build the most excessive response to the least probable threat situation, that’s okay,” said Vladimir Lukin, deputy speaker of parliament. A Palestiniansuicide bomber disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew smiled out of the corner of his mouth and blew himself up on the Street of the Prophets in Jerusalem, wounding 20 people. It was the fifth bomb to go off in Jerusalem that day. Other bombers had better luck and succeeded in killing innocent people. American warplanes bombed Iraq. It was revealed that the United States has been engaged in germ-warfare research that violates or comes close to violating the 1972 treaty outlawing biological weapons. The European Parliament heard testimony that Echelon, America’s rumored spy network, can monitor any telecommunication that bounces off a satellite. Physicist Stephen Hawking recommended that humans modify their genome to speed up evolution and prevent intelligent computers from taking over the world. The Bush Administration decided not to pursue the breakup of Microsoft. Prozac’s share of the antidepressant market had dropped by two thirds in the three weeks since its patent expired and generic versions appeared. Scientists were attempting to discover, using objective criteria, the funniest joke in Britain. A 16-year-old boy hit the king of Sweden in the face with a strawberry cream cake. Medical staff at an old-folks’ home in Denmark claimed that porn and prostitutes do more good than drugs in treating the elderly. Scientists found that horses are happier if they have mirrors in their stalls.

The Earth Liberation Front vandalized a cancer-research lab on Long Island, apparently because they were upset about biotechnology research. A new study, financed by biotechnology companies, concluded that monarch butterfly caterpillars are not killed by the pollen of BT corn, a finding that contradicts studies that were not financed by biotechnology companies. Sharks were eating people in Virginia and North Carolina. Florida banned the use of bloody bait to lure sharks to “interactive” scuba dives. A 17-year-old Siberian boy beat his parents to death with an iron bar because they were trying to put a stop to his video-gambling habit; he was arrested at the video arcade. Police in Prague arrested a man for murdering his girlfriend and mailing her body parts to fake addresses. In Florida, a 16-year-old boy was saved by his Bible when it deflected a shotgun blast fired by his mother; his six-year-old brother was less fortunate. Residents of Reno, Nevada, were trying to prevent a kitty-litter mine and processing plant from opening nearby. Scientists found that some people prefer ugly mates. In Chappaqua, New York, the parents of a high school senior were in trouble for hiring a stripper to perform at a party filled with students; when police arrived the stripper was naked, on her back, performing a lewd act, possibly with an object.

Astronomers saw a giant flare at the center of the Milky Way that might be the event horizon of a black hole one million times more massive than the sun. Britishscientists found that a marijuana spray applied under the tongue helped people with chronic pain. One million Britishschoolchildren jumped in unison for a minute in a failed attempt to create a minor earthquake. United Airlines was being sued after a flight crew forced a British transvestite to get off a plane and change into proper men’s attire. A federal appeals court found that prison inmates have a right to procreate that “survives incarceration.” A virus was killing thousands of salmon in eastern Maine. President Megawati Sukarnoputri visited the unhappy province of Aceh and apologized for Indonesia’s “shortcomings” in the region, which might have been an oblique reference to the mass graves recently discovered there. After much hullabaloo, the delegates who remained at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance agreed to condemn the old European slave trade and to express concern about the “plight of the Palestinians under foreign occupation.” After two days of throwing stones at Catholic schoolgirls who were on their way to school, Protestants in Belfast decided to throw a pipe bomb. Thousands of small dead bait fish washed up on the beaches of Stone Harbor, New York. Elderly Trappist monks in Iowa were keeping busy making coffins. Sudden oak death, a mysterious disease that causes its victims to weep sap, was killing trees in California. A young elk got drunk eating fermented apples and caused traffic jams in Sweden.

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I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

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I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

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No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

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The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

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That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

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