Blog: Portraits of America

These are examples of edited pieces from the blog Portraits of America (formally Portraits of Boston), for which I am the copyeditor of the website. These pieces present a unique editing challenge, as the tone of each speaker must be preserved in preference over strict grammatical accuracy.


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 “In 1972, when I was 23 years old, I left my home in Savannah. I knew nothing about no God, and I shot cocaine from ’73 to ’93. I was young, and I wasn’t getting no check-ups, so I didn’t know that I was getting really sick. One day I was walking down the streets of Manhattan, when I fell on my face. I laid there on the street, dying. A whole lot of people walked by me, thinking I was just drunk or sleeping. Nobody stopped. I was just about dead, when finally one white man in a suit with a briefcase came by, turned me over, and said, ‘Sir, are you all right? I’m gonna get you some help.’ He flagged down a cab, put me in it, and took me to Jamaica Hospital in Queens. Got me there just in time. From all the people who walked by me, God summoned that man. He was an angel. I laid in that hospital bed for eight months, and I couldn’t move or do nothing. Once I got out, I never looked back or did drugs again. I don’t even like taking a flu shot.”

“In 1972, when I was 23 years old, I left my home in Savannah. I knew nothing about no God, and I shot cocaine from ’73 to ’93. I was young, and I wasn’t getting no check-ups, so I didn’t know that I was getting really sick. One day I was walking down the streets of Manhattan, when I fell on my face. I laid there on the street, dying. A whole lot of people walked by me, thinking I was just drunk or sleeping. Nobody stopped. I was just about dead, when finally one white man in a suit with a briefcase came by, turned me over, and said, ‘Sir, are you all right? I’m gonna get you some help.’ He flagged down a cab, put me in it, and took me to Jamaica Hospital in Queens. Got me there just in time. From all the people who walked by me, God summoned that man. He was an angel. I laid in that hospital bed for eight months, and I couldn’t move or do nothing. Once I got out, I never looked back or did drugs again. I don’t even like taking a flu shot.”


 “I’m worried because I’m trying to enjoy myself by doing what I want to do, but at the same time I feel that there are a lot of people I don’t want to let down, so I need to make something out of myself. I’m trying to find a balance between the two.”  “Who are the people you don’t want to let down?”  “The most important one is my mom. She’s very sick. I’m studying science hoping to be part of the team that cures her, but I’m not sure she’s going to make it until I’m in a position to help her. Right now, a part of me is looking forward to going home and spending time with her, but another part of me wishes I could still be here, doing more so that maybe I can do something with that disease. I also worry that this decision is weighing heavily on me, and I’ve become so stressed and so angry that it’s hurting my friends and family. Part of my obligation to them is that I take care of myself as well. I think I’m just discovering that. They care about me, so it hurts them if I’m unhealthy or unhappy.”

“I’m worried because I’m trying to enjoy myself by doing what I want to do, but at the same time I feel that there are a lot of people I don’t want to let down, so I need to make something out of myself. I’m trying to find a balance between the two.”

“Who are the people you don’t want to let down?”

“The most important one is my mom. She’s very sick. I’m studying science hoping to be part of the team that cures her, but I’m not sure she’s going to make it until I’m in a position to help her. Right now, a part of me is looking forward to going home and spending time with her, but another part of me wishes I could still be here, doing more so that maybe I can do something with that disease. I also worry that this decision is weighing heavily on me, and I’ve become so stressed and so angry that it’s hurting my friends and family. Part of my obligation to them is that I take care of myself as well. I think I’m just discovering that. They care about me, so it hurts them if I’m unhealthy or unhappy.”


 “I had an eating disorder for eight years, and I thought I’d never be able to get over it, that I would have to live that way forever. I was really sick and came close to dying. This Wednesday will be a year to the day since I decided to get treatment.”  “How did you first develop the eating disorder?”  “One thing I’ve learned from my treatment is that eating disorders are very multifaceted, so there’s never really just one reason. I was bullied a lot in school because I was overweight. My mom was addicted to painkillers, and most of my childhood was spent watching her try to overcome that, fail, then try, and fail again. It was a lot for me to handle at a young age: you’re supposed to be a kid and have your parents take care of you, not the other way around. I think that, combined with being bullied so much, created the perfect storm for me.”

“I had an eating disorder for eight years, and I thought I’d never be able to get over it, that I would have to live that way forever. I was really sick and came close to dying. This Wednesday will be a year to the day since I decided to get treatment.”

“How did you first develop the eating disorder?”

“One thing I’ve learned from my treatment is that eating disorders are very multifaceted, so there’s never really just one reason. I was bullied a lot in school because I was overweight. My mom was addicted to painkillers, and most of my childhood was spent watching her try to overcome that, fail, then try, and fail again. It was a lot for me to handle at a young age: you’re supposed to be a kid and have your parents take care of you, not the other way around. I think that, combined with being bullied so much, created the perfect storm for me.”


  “You’re talking to someone with a lot of experience living out of a car. When you’re homeless, you can’t always shower as often as you would like to, so I had ten layers of clothes on to reduce body odor. I could make them last for about two months by shifting the layers—putting the outer layers on the inside and the inside layers on the outside. I learned so many things during that time that people have asked me to write a book on the subject.  ”But I’ve actually spent my life attempting to write something else: a simple, contemporary sacred text that’s both religiously and secularly acceptable about the main ethics that make a good world. The three that I came up with were enlightenment, which is the idea of principles; equality, which is the idea of people; and ecology, which is related to place. It’s been my lifelong dream to describe this core set of values in a delightful, entertaining and unbiased way, so they could be practiced universally. But I didn’t realize how difficult that would be. I started working on this in the 1960s, when there seemed to be a spirit of hope for humanity, but even then some really intelligent people said to me, ‘You’re overlooking one thing: human beings are not consistently rational.’ And that wasn’t the only thing I was overlooking. For example, a lot of Christian people in this country look at the problems our world faces and throw up their arms, saying, ’Well, God will take care of it, and Armageddon is unavoidable.’ “So I’m disappointed that I did not accurately assess the complexity of the task when I set off to do this. I thought it would take five years. Instead, here I am 50 years later—five decades later! I’m a little exhausted and disheartened.”


“You’re talking to someone with a lot of experience living out of a car. When you’re homeless, you can’t always shower as often as you would like to, so I had ten layers of clothes on to reduce body odor. I could make them last for about two months by shifting the layers—putting the outer layers on the inside and the inside layers on the outside. I learned so many things during that time that people have asked me to write a book on the subject. 
”But I’ve actually spent my life attempting to write something else: a simple, contemporary sacred text that’s both religiously and secularly acceptable about the main ethics that make a good world. The three that I came up with were enlightenment, which is the idea of principles; equality, which is the idea of people; and ecology, which is related to place. It’s been my lifelong dream to describe this core set of values in a delightful, entertaining and unbiased way, so they could be practiced universally. But I didn’t realize how difficult that would be. I started working on this in the 1960s, when there seemed to be a spirit of hope for humanity, but even then some really intelligent people said to me, ‘You’re overlooking one thing: human beings are not consistently rational.’ And that wasn’t the only thing I was overlooking. For example, a lot of Christian people in this country look at the problems our world faces and throw up their arms, saying, ’Well, God will take care of it, and Armageddon is unavoidable.’
“So I’m disappointed that I did not accurately assess the complexity of the task when I set off to do this. I thought it would take five years. Instead, here I am 50 years later—five decades later! I’m a little exhausted and disheartened.”


    “When I was young, I was the manager of an apartment building. One day, a young mother asked if I would watch her newborn son. His name was Brian, and he was only three weeks old. She handed him to me—he had no diaper on, and was wearing nothing but a receiving blanket—and she didn’t come back for four years. Her grandmother was a tenant living in the building I managed. She was old, and didn’t have the endurance to take care of a newborn all the time, but she’d watch Brian in the daytime, and I would take care of him all night. I liked him, so when his mother didn’t come back for a few weeks, I started thinking, ‘Why should she get to keep him?’ I had already bought him diapers, a crib, and other stuff. “I had to send him to school when he was five, so I took him to the doctor to get his shots, but I didn’t have the authority to give somebody else’s kid a shot. So we had to look for his mom. She came back, and Brian had no idea who she was. He thought I was his mom. When she took him away, it was as if I had lost my baby. I lost a lot of weight, couldn’t work, and lost my job. I went to the store one time, and Brian was there with his mom. He started running towards me, screaming, ‘Mooooom!’”

 

“When I was young, I was the manager of an apartment building. One day, a young mother asked if I would watch her newborn son. His name was Brian, and he was only three weeks old. She handed him to me—he had no diaper on, and was wearing nothing but a receiving blanket—and she didn’t come back for four years. Her grandmother was a tenant living in the building I managed. She was old, and didn’t have the endurance to take care of a newborn all the time, but she’d watch Brian in the daytime, and I would take care of him all night. I liked him, so when his mother didn’t come back for a few weeks, I started thinking, ‘Why should she get to keep him?’ I had already bought him diapers, a crib, and other stuff.
“I had to send him to school when he was five, so I took him to the doctor to get his shots, but I didn’t have the authority to give somebody else’s kid a shot. So we had to look for his mom. She came back, and Brian had no idea who she was. He thought I was his mom. When she took him away, it was as if I had lost my baby. I lost a lot of weight, couldn’t work, and lost my job. I went to the store one time, and Brian was there with his mom. He started running towards me, screaming, ‘Mooooom!’”