Special Feature — May 1, 2014, 11:37 am

Dottie’s Charms, by Jill Sobule

The new album from singer-songerwriter Jill Sobule

Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms

 

A couple of years ago, Jill Sobule was given a vintage charm bracelet as a gift. When she examined the bracelet, she found it unexpectedly compelling. It wasn’t simply a funky piece of costume jewelry: it was instead an archive of events in a person’s life, memorialized by twenty-two tiny, cheap, pewter mementos. But whose life? All Sobule knew for sure about the original owner of the bracelet was the name etched in one of the charms: Dorothy.

Sobule soon saw in that charm bracelet the architecture for a musical project, which she set out to realize in an unusual and ambitious way: each of the charms would be the inspiration for a song, and the lyrics for each song would be written by a different writer. She contacted ten authors whom she had long admired: David Hajdu, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, James Marcus, Sara Marcus, Nina Mehta, Rick Moody, Mary Jo Salter, Luc Sante, and Vendela Vida. Every one signed on. The lyrics were written across more than a year’s time, and Sobule matched each set with suitably variegated music: wistful, tender, comic, dark. The result, Dottie’s Charms, is rich in the kind of storytelling energy and buoyant humor that has always been Jill Sobule’s signature.

The only thing missing from this cinematic enterprise was a visual element. And that too was eventually addressed, first by the illustrator and painter Molly Crabapple (who did all the graphics here as well as the CD and vinyl jacket), then by three gifted filmmakers: Bette Gordon, Tom Kalin, and Sara Zandieh. They have made Dottie’s Charms a treat for the eye as well as the ear.


TRACKLIST  (charm, lyricist)

LISTEN     MY CHAIR  (office chair, James Marcus)
LISTEN     FLIGHT  (jet plane, Vendela Vida)
LISTEN     STATUE OF LIBERTY  (Statue of Liberty, Jonathan Lethem)
LISTEN     I SWEAR I SAW CHRISTOPHER REEVE  (Mackinac Island, David Hajdu)
LISTEN     WOMEN OF INDUSTRY  (ABWA logo, David Hajdu)
LISTEN     O CANADA  (Canadian penny, Sara Marcus)
LISTEN     OLD KENTUCKY  (Kentucky map, Luc Sante)
LISTEN     WEDDING RING  (wedding ring, Mary Jo Salter)
LISTEN     THE MEZUZAH  (mezuzah, Nina Mehta)
LISTEN     I HATE HORSES  (stirrup, Sam Lipsyte)
LISTEN     LONELY EIGHTY EIGHT  (piano, Rick Moody)

 

Jill Sobule’s pungent lyrics and graceful, gliding melodies have placed her (as Jon Pareles of the New York Times observed) “among the stellar New York singer-songwriters of the last decade.” She is perhaps best known for her 1995 single “I Kissed a Girl,” as well as her performance of “Supermodel” on the Clueless soundtrack. But Sobule has released seven studio albums of original songs, three EPs, and a variety of collaborations, with the comedian Julia Sweeney, Lloyd Cole, John Doe, and Don Was. Her recent projects include musical versions of “Yentl” (adapted from the original Isaac Bashevis Singer story, not the Barbra Streisand abomination) and Allan Moyle’s 1980 punk-rock film Times Square.Dottie’s Charms is her first full-scale release in five years.

Cover art and illustrations by Molly Crabapple. Crabapple is an artist and writer living in New York City. A columnist for Vice, she has also contributed to the New York Times, Newsweek, The Paris Review, CNN, Jacobin, and Der Spiegel. Her illustrated memoir, Drawing Blood, will be published in 2015.


STREAM THE ENTIRE ALBUM


TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

James Marcus is an essayist, editor, and translator, and the author of Amazonia and an upcoming book about Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is also the executive editor of Harper’s Magazine and a skilled musician.

MY CHAIR
(office-chair charm)

Lyric by James Marcus
Music by Jill Sobule

What do I see to the right of me?
The man in A-473
He’s got a rash where his sleeve’s rolled up
And a swizzle stick in his pencil cup

What do I see to the left of me?
It’s Ginger from Parsippany
Her hair is brown and her face is red
Her Labrador sleeps on the bed

And what do I see in front of me?
A hint of domesticity
The supervisor’s little boys
Their smiling faces, smiling toys

My chair is twenty stories high
I see you when you tell a lie
Where you ate and where you slept
The promises you never kept
You never kept

What do I see to the right of me?
A woman I would rather be
Taller, thinner, better skin
A dimple in her perfect chin

And what do I see to the left of me?
A man that I would rather be
The deeper voice and the dapper clothes
The leather shoes his girlfriend chose

Oh tell me what is left of me
At Great Republic Guaranty
The little kingdom that I rule
As empress of the invoice pool

My chair is twenty stories high
I see you when you tell a lie
Where you ate and where you slept
The promises you never kept
You never kept

My chair is twenty stories high
Another solitary night
I see there is no guarantee
Oh tell me what is left of me
What’s left of me


Directed by Bette Gordon

TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

Vendela Vida is a novelist, journalist, and the editor of The Believer, as well as the author of Girls on the Verge, The Lovers: A Novel, and other books.

Mike Viola is a Los Angeles-based performer, songwriter, and producer. His latest recording is Acousto De Perfecto. He also created the music for such films as Get Him to the Greek, Walk Hard, and That Thing You Do!

Bette Gordon is the director of Variety, Luminous Motion, and most recently, Handsome Harry. Her short films have won numerous awards and have been screened at the Berlin Film Festival, MOMA, and the Whitney Biennial. She teaches at Columbia University.

FLIGHT
(jet plane charm)

Lyric by Vendela Vida
Music by Mike Viola & Jill Sobule

Last time I was on a flight I was racing to see you
I’d packed flip-flops and a new black bathing suit
But from the very moment I got off that plane
All I saw through every window was pewter-colored rain

On Friday night you tried to make me smile
But everything about you was faded and diluted
You were much more solid in my memory
Up close you looked like a poor facsimile

Flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that plane

On Saturday morning we tried to go to the shooting range
We tried to make homemade pumpkin soup for lunch
We paid too much to go to the pinball machine show
And we both agreed — was so-so

We sat inside so much of that long, long weekend
On your grandmother’s old furniture — that itchy couch
And broken chair — at least the bed, thank God, was new
But by Sunday morning we both knew we were through

Flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that plane

I want to be so close to someone I can count all their eyelashes
Want to be so close they’ll ask to know my mother’s middle name
I want to be so close to someone they’ll know what I’m about to say
Want to be so close to someone that’s why I got on this plane

So on Sunday morning we had our talk
And complimented ourselves for not being mean
And tried to figure out the best way to still be friends
But what we were really saying was “The end, the end, the end, the end, the end, the end, the end, the end”

Flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that plane

Flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that plane


Directed by Tom Kalin
 

TRACKLIST

Jonathan Lethem is a novelist, essayist, and MacArthur “genius,” as well as the author of Gun with Occasional Music, The Fortress of Solitude, Dissident Gardens, and many other books.

From short experimental videos (Third Known Nest) to installations and live performances (My Silent One) to feature-length films (Swoon, Savage Grace), Tom Kalin’s award-winning work has been screened around the world. He was a member of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury and is currently a film professor at Columbia University.

STATUE OF LIBERTY
(Statue of Liberty charm)

Lyric by Jonathan Lethem
Music by Jill Sobule and Mike Viola

When we started migrating
Across this great land
I should have know we’d never cross
Dancing hand in hand

You were my consolation
Maybe my booby prize
Fat chance I’d ever see
The horizon in your eyes

Went to see the Statue of Liberty
Feeling we’d have nothing to prove
And though they call it a Statue of Liberty
I swear I saw it move
I swear I saw it move
Yeah, when you showed me that Statue of Liberty
I believed I heard a song I could sing
But it’s only a Statue of Liberty
Not the real thing
Not the real thing
Not the real thing

Developing the footage
At the finish of the trip
In retrospect it’s obvious what made the camera slip

At a malt shop
In a booth
You offered me this charm
I knew you had no earthly reason to do me any harm

Went to see the Statue of Liberty
Feeling we’d have nothing to prove
And though they call it a Statue of Liberty
I swear I saw it move
I swear I saw it move
Yeah, when you showed me that Statue of Liberty
I believed I heard a song I could sing
But it’s only a Statue of Liberty
Not the real thing
Not the real thing
Not the real thing
Not the real thing
Not the real thing


TRACKLIST

David Hajdu is the author of four books of cultural history and criticism, including Lush Life and Positively 4th Street. Hajdu helped Jill Sobule develop this project and wrote about two charms: a pennant from Mackinac Island, and a medallion for the American Business Woman’s Association.

I SWEAR I SAW
CHRISTOPHER REEVE
(Mackinac Island charm)

Lyric by David Hajdu
Music by Jill Sobule and Mike Viola

You know, it’s not pronounced “Mackinack”
It’s “Mackinaw”
Mackinac
It’s an Indian name, but it almost sounds French
Mackinac
Le Mackinac

Quaint as crocheting
Silent as that “c”
Just came to Mackinac
Came here with me

It’s like Bermuda in Michigan
Mackinaw
Mackinaw
So tranquil I hardly need tranquilizers
Mackinaw
No Seconal

No moving vehicles
No glitz, no buzz
Preserving a history
That never quite was

So magically sweet and so sublime
They came here to shoot “Somewhere in Time”
So real and yet so like make-believe
I swear I saw Christopher Reeve

You’ll never guess where we met
Mackinaw
Mackinaw
He’s a bit of pudge, but I really didn’t mind
Mackinaw
Sir Mackinaw

Time can’t remove
What we had on that trip
The kiss in my vestibule
The stain on my slip

Quaint as crocheting
Silent as that “c”
I just came to Mackinac
Came here with me

So magically sweet and so sublime
Almost don’t care that there’ll be no next time
When he flew away, left me to grieve
I swear I saw Christopher Reeve


TRACKLIST

WOMEN OF INDUSTRY
(ABWA logo charm)

Lyric by David Hajdu
Music by Jill Sobule and Dan Wilson

Women of industry
Straighten your backs
Pull off your skirts
And buckle your slacks

Women of purpose
And women of means
Women of Menger and Keynes

We’re here to do some yelling
And this is the spelling

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

Women of enterprise
Lords of our fates
Captains of finance
And not just the mates

Women of business
Come take a man’s tie
Pull it and kiss him goodbye

So cheer and raise a hand for
Whatever these letters stand for

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

Gentility?
No!
Servility?
Go!
Give us no more than a try

Ability?
Yes!
Virility?
Guess!
A chromosome X if you wanna know why

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A


Directed by Sara Zandieh

 

TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

Sara Marcus is a former punk rocker, a literary journalist, and the author of Girls to the Front.

Sara Zandieh’s The Pool Party, shot in Tehran on the eve of the 2010 Iranian election crisis, won a Special Jury Mention at that year’s Tribeca Film Festival. She has also written and directed several comedic shorts including Deadline and Reza Hassani Goes to the Mall, which premiered at Telluride. 

O CANADA
(Canadian penny charm)

Lyric by Sara Marcus
Music by Jill Sobule and Mike Viola

O Canada, you took me in
Just beneath your native skin
To the land we both belonged to years ago
O pal of mine, how young it was
Mountie you and Yankee cuz
Dog days, adolescent fuzz
Distortion, gain, delay

Oh Canada, you took me in, you took me in,
you took me in, O Canada

A summer long, a lakefront green
The profile of departed queen
Sat sweating by mosquito screens
In doors upon the wild
You gave your heart, I deigned a glance
It seemed so plain, but you thought fancy
Saw through it.
You were still a child

Oh Canada, you took me in
you took me in
you took me in
O Canada

In my pocket, getting warm
Like August in November
In my pocket, getting warm
A value-vacant ember
Oh Canada

O Canada, your penny buys
Not much more than a pair of eyes
Red and cold like dragonflies
It trolls the lake at dawn
That’s how much our stories earn
Worthless as a mountain fern
Summer glows for fall to burn
For fall to burn

Oh Canada, you took me in
you took me in
you took me in
O Canada


TRACKLIST

Luc Sante is an essayist, critic, and nonfiction writer, and the author of Low Life, Evidence, Kill All Your Darlings, and other books.

OLD KENTUCKY
(Kentucky map charm)

Lyric by Luc Sante
Music by Jill Sobule and Mike Viola

When it’s reckoning time in old Kentucky
I ask myself if I’m feeling lucky
Will it be champagne or flat cold ducky?
The sun shines down on my old Kentucky charm

Had a dollar to win but I lost my head
Had a dollar to place, I forgot my map
Had a dollar to show but I stayed in bed
All that’s in my pocket is my pocket flap

When it’s reckoning time in the court of law
All I can summon is my monkey’s paw
And all I’m asking is for a jury draw
The sun shines down on my old Kentucky charm

Had a line to walk but I walked it crooked
Had a rule to follow but I tried to lead it
I had a promise to keep but the devil took it
When it comes to losing I’m undefeated

When it’s reckoning time at heaven’s gate
I’ll grin like I’m meeting my mystery date
Hope I can keep my story straight
Oh the sun shines down on my old Kentucky charm

Had a life to lead and I spent it all
Had a dream to catch and I let it go to heck
Had a hope in hell and I helped it fall
Now I’m done losing and I’m ready to collect

It’s reckoning time in old Kentucky


TRACKLIST

Mary Jo Salter is one of the most respected poets in America, and the author of A Kiss in Space, Open Shutters, and other collections.

WEDDING RING
(wedding-ring charm)

Lyric by Mary Jo Salter
Music by Jill Sobule and Dave Palmer

I’m wearing your wedding ring
But it’s not on my finger
Remember when we married?
We slipped on rings and kissed
I’m wearing your wedding ring
No longer on my finger
No longer on my finger
But only on my wrist

Well, you sure you were charming
But charming can do harm
I learned at last just what I am
One more girl on your list
You may have been disarming
But I’ve put you on my wrist
Brace yourself, I’ve got a bracelet
And you’re no longer on my finger
You’re only on my wrist

You’re just one more of the many charms
I take around
They jangle to remind me
I’ve still got my own sound
I wear a little tambourine
Right here and when it shakes
I kind of like the music
And all the trembling makes

I thought you were my true love
You sure were a dead ringer
I loved it when we kissed
You’re no longer on my finger, honey
You’re among the charming many
Dangling from my wrist
You’re no longer on my finger
You’re no longer on my finger
You’re no longer on my finger
You’re only on my, only on my
Only on my wrist


TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

Nina Mehta is an award-winning financial journalist and essayist.

THE MEZUZAH
(Mezuzah charm)

Lyric by Nina Mehta
Music by Jill Sobule

I’ve traveled to cities you’ve never seen
Far from the town where I was a teen
To Budapest and west Odense
A million miles from New Providence

Thirty years later, my childhood’s gone
The blue-and-white house half-acre lawn
So why do I dwell on the elm tree in back
The mezuzah in front and the books in the stack?

There was nothing to do and the neighbors were mean
I sat in my room and tried not to scream
We fought and we squabbled every third day
And I longed for the time when I’d go far away

I never look back and I try to forget
So why do I think of this house with regret?
Why do I dwell on the elm tree in back
The mezuzah in front and the books in the stack?

Now I walk to work under a mackerel sky
The tears start to slide, I can’t fathom why
It’s been nine years since you’re in a grave
I keep on living and I even forgave

How you died in front of me that day
The clocks keeps ticking as you slide away
And time stood still for a full year
While I pretend you were near

Mom, you died in front of me that day
Four paramedics, they couldn’t say
That you would live to comfort me
Or one day know who I would be

I never look back and I try to forget
So why do I think of the house with regret?
Why do I dwell on the elm tree in back
The mezuzah in front and the books in the stack?

I never look back and I try to forget
So why do I think of the house with regret?
Why do I dwell on the elm tree in back
The mezuzah in front and the books in the stack?


TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

Sam Lipsyte is a Guggenheim fellow, a novelist and former noise-rock musician, and the author of The Ask, Home Land, The Fun Parts, and other books.

I HATE HORSES
(stirrup charm)

Lyric by Sam Lipsyte
Music by Jill Sobule and Adam Levy

Bobby was a cowboy
Liked to roam the Range
It’s a bar near Great Neck
The man sold vans and he was strange

Found a stirrup in the gutter
Did a bourbon stumble home
Laid the thing beside my pillow
Smelled like garbage and ice-cream cone

I hate horses
All my friends drew horses
Never looked that free to me
Scared and crazy as can be
I hate, I hate horses

Marina mimosas
Another dude another time
Said the stirrup changed the world
Like the printing press or Patsy Cline

He took me home to his pick-up
We drank booze and watched the stars
Said he team-roped in the rodeo
That’s code for something people did in cars

I hate horses
All my friends drew horses
Never looked that free to me
Scared and crazy as can be
I hate, I hate horses

But I got one stirrup to my name
Cracked and dirty stirrup for my claim
Trick rider, won’t you lean down for me?
I’m dying in this dust

Oh, I hate horses
All my friends drew horses
Never looked that free to me
Scared and crazy as can be
I hate, I hate horses
I hate, I hate horses


TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

Rick Moody is the author of The Ice Storm, Garden State, On Celestial Music, and other books. He is also a musician and songwriter.

Fred Hersch is a composer, six-time Grammy nominee, and (according Vanity Fair) “the most arrestingly innovative pianist in jazz over the last decade or so.” His most recent recording is Free Flying, a duet performance with the guitarist Julian Lage.

LONELY EIGHTY EIGHT
(piano charm)

Lyric by Rick Moody
Music by Jill Sobule and Fred Hersch

I learned a major scale when I was nine or ten
On the baby grand in the corner of the mud room
My mother picked out Debussy and Gershwin now and then
When she wasn’t weaving sweaters on her loom

I learned the minor scales in middle school’s dark ages
My dad had packed his things and moved ‘cross town
The keys were chipped, the G sharp stuck, and the piece was missing pages
But I practiced and I swallowed it all down

On the lonely eighty-eight
The lonely eighty-eight
Whether early, whether late
On the lonely eighty-eight

In high school there was football — but for me, diminished chords
And a book on how to fake a little jazz
In chem class, kind of restless, in algebra so bored
And the hallways were a kind of Alcatraz

I took some composition in my first year up at state
But the teacher liked that stuff that had no key
I never did get counterpoint, so I took an incomplete
But the practice rooms on Powers Street were free

On the lonely eighty-eight
The lonely eighty-eight
It was a Friday and no date
But the lonely eight-eight

I dropped out of law school when I got an F in torts
And I sold the Fender Rhodes to pay some bills
The paralegal gig, it was my last resort
But it wasn’t long before I got my fill

And now I’m here alone as the moon goes thru its phases
And the only folks who call are candidates
I blow the dust off, pick a score, and limber up my wrists,
And in the stillness I begin to celebrate

On the lonely eighty-eight
The lonely eighty-eight
Whether early, whether late
It’s a Friday with no date
But here I am with the lonely eighty-eight

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Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

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Who Is She?·

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I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

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Murder Italian Style·

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The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled in favor of personal-injury lawyer George Sink Sr., who had sued his son, George Sink Jr., for using his own name at his competing law firm.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun

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“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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