"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
They called it the “new” Times Square. I dodged tourists to get to work. There was always a man standing at the corner of 50th Street and Broadway in a yellow vest that read “Flashdancers,” passing out little cards to all the men who walked by. One day, I asked him for one. He looked at me. “I work there,” I said. He handed me a card.
On the card was a picture of a topless woman who did not work at Flash. Come visit me, it read. It was a free pass to get in.
I was attending Antioch College at the time, and they had a program called “co-op,” wherein students alternated semesters on campus with terms of work or volunteer experience anywhere in the world. That fall, I had arranged to “co-op” in New York City, working at a nonprofit afterschool program for economically disadvantaged girls. But more importantly, when I’d made the arrangements I’d also set my sights on stripping in New York City, becoming part of an industry more glamorous and lucrative than any I’d come into contact with. Stripping was something I’d been doing since my sophomore year, when I found myself out of money while on co-op in Mexico. After that, I’d worked at two domestic violence shelters in Ohio, as a rape crisis counselor and at a Somali women’s health organization in London. To afford to live during the unpaid internships so often taken for granted as part of the undergraduate experience, I stripped.
Through two years working off and on in the industry, I’d become more and more dependent on it. I relied on the income, but it was more than that. Outside of work, I kept mostly to myself. Few people knew the true details of my life. Ordinary human engagement ran risks and involved such censure that it hardly felt worth it. Without many friends or hobbies, and with few outside interests, sex work had become necessary not just for my economic survival, but for my social needs and emotional sustenance as well.
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At the clubs back in Ohio, I had stood out as exceptional—more educated and, in my opinion, prettier than my coworkers. In New York City, I quickly learned this wouldn’t be the case. My first week in the city, I grabbed a Village Voice, flipped to the back page, made a list of clubs and set out on foot. More than one manager looked me up and down before handing me a paper application without asking for so much as an audition. Most never called back.
New York Dolls was a sports bar up front and a cabaret in the back. It wasn’t as nice as some of the other places I’d auditioned, but business was steady and the money was good.
I’d been working at Dolls for just over a week when the events of September 11th turned downtown Manhattan into “Ground Zero” and we were out of jobs. I showed up at Flashdancers—Dolls’s sister club in Times Square—pretending my manager at Dolls had sent me. This was how I came to work at Flash.
* * *
Welcome to the world-famous Flashdancers. The house fee is one hundred and fifty dollars a night. Each dancer pays her house fee when she walks through the door. Arrive twenty minutes before the start of your shift. Get there a minute late and risk being fined. More than five minutes late and you might be sent home. At Flash, the rules were strict and we girls were expected to follow them. I tried to follow the rules. I wanted to fit in.
Whereas other clubs I’d worked in would hire girls of all sizes and descriptions, the girls who worked as Flashdancers had a certain look. Everyone was tan with long hair, long nails and drag-queen makeup. Most girls were tall, with big tits and small waists. No imperfections—no scars, no stretch marks, no body fat. With a little work, I fit the bill. Without it, I was a normal-looking girl with a normal woman’s body. Good enough, I remember thinking often, but not good enough for Flash.
The girls who worked at Flash were professionals. I was competing with women five inches taller than I was. Ten pounds lighter. Girls with advanced degrees. Girls from places where people only dreamt of making the kind of money a girl could make at Flash. At Flash, a girl could make as much as a thousand dollars a night. After our house fee and the requisite tipping—d.j., floor staff and house moms (the women in the dressing room who watched our stuff and did our makeup)—we kept whatever we made: twenty dollars per lap dance, plus whatever tips we were given while onstage.
When I arrived, the dressing room was packed. It was house policy that dancers not have tattoos, so we girls who had them—nearly all of us—had to cover them with makeup. I had five by then, all butterflies, zigzagging up my left side. I got my tattoos covered, tipped the house mom a twenty, and got in line.
The d.j. called Flashdancers “The United Nations of Strip Clubs.” At the beginning of the shift, we’d do the parade. Nearly one hundred girls from all over the world walked across the stage in a line as the d.j. rattled off our names in alphabetical order: Alex, Alexandria, Alexis, Amanda, Anna, Anita—the list went on and on.
After the parade, we congregated to the right side of the stage. Most nights, I sat down at a table with two Russian girls and a black girl named Snow. I started each shift with a cup of black coffee and a handful of Xenadrine. A month after I’d started taking them, I was up to four pills at a time—double the recommended dose. The effect was something like the revving of an engine or the booting up of a computer. When a group of guys walked in, Snow and I wasted no time.
“Who’s ready for a dance?” Snow asked.
Two guys volunteered themselves. I took my customer by the hand and led him to the vinyl benches where the private dances took place.
“I really like this song,” I said.
“Yeah. I’m going to make this dance extra special.”
As I positioned myself between his legs, he put his hands on my thighs. I took his hands, as though it were part of my act, and put them back on his lap. He let out a dramatic sigh. Look, I thought, they’re not my rules. I might not have cared, but Flash was strict. They told you what to wear, how to dance, how to conduct yourself when sitting with a client. The money at Flashdancers was better than anywhere I’d worked before, and some might say I did a lot less to earn it. Still, with all their rules, there was little room for personality. I sometimes missed the trashier places in Ohio, where I could be more like myself.
When the song came to an end, he reached for his wallet. On cue, I started getting dressed. I looked back to the table to see that Snow had already moved on. That table’s burnt, I thought. I scanned the room for my next twenty bucks.
* * *
Tonight, I tell myself at the start of each night, I’m going to make a lot of money. Find a table celebrating some guy’s birthday. Give the birthday boy a dance. Lead him by the hand to the corner of the room. Become one of a hundred girls, bodies aslant, naked in tangerine skin. Vacant face, like a magazine ad. Part your lips, smile coy. Turn, bend over. Rinse and repeat. Change your costume every hour. Sequins to feathers to spandex to lace. Have a drink or two to loosen up. Have another when you’re on a roll. Try something on for one customer; discard it for the next.
Tell me about your job.
That is so interesting.
You sound so important.
I am really starting to like you.
I really like you, honest I do.
I think I’m starting to fall for you.
You smile like you love it, you laugh like it’s funny. You act as if you’re having fun. The truth was that it wasn’t fun, not anymore. Had I been able to be honest with myself, I would have had to admit that it had stopped being “fun.” Sure, some nights, something interesting might happen. Most nights, though, were all the same. It was an easy, comfortable, familiar feeling, but I would not have described it as “fun.” I told myself it was work—a job like any other. But what other job, I’d argue with myself, would pay me like this one? How else could I both work and go to school? Sure, I didn’t like doing it, but what was the alternative? Working at Starbucks? No way, I told myself. I was worth more than that.
* * *
At the end of each night, Assad was waiting at the exit. He took my bag and opened the car door.
“How you doing, baby girl?”
I sunk into the sedan’s cool leather interior, took off my shoes, stretched my legs and calves, and curled my toes. By the end of the night, my body ached so badly that sometimes my legs would seize up in my sleep. Restrictive rules, rude customers, late hours—the wear and tear on my body was just part of the work. Other jobs I’d had were physically rigorous—washing dishes, for example—and none of them paid anything compared to stripping, so how could I complain?
Just as soon as we took off, I counted my cash. Twenty short of four hundred dollars. Not a great night, I thought, but not bad.
Assad, who’d been watching from the rearview mirror, whistled through his teeth.
I studied Assad in the mirror, noting how—from his pencil-thin mustache to his pressed collared shirt, silver cufflinks and flashy watch—he kept himself, like his car, in immaculate order. Assad had a lot of pride for a taxi driver. Maybe because he drove around a lot of girls in the industry, he was neither offended nor impressed by my occupation. As a result, I felt I could tell him anything. I knew he didn’t judge. He also didn’t hit on me, which was rare and which allowed me to trust him. He was, at this time in my life, one of few people I could trust.
Assad and I traded stories. He loved hearing about the guys I’d meet at work and all the stupid shit they’d say. I could tell he thought I was tough. He had stories of his own. Assad would tell me about all the crazy people he’d meet—men “dressed like girls,” kids high on drugs.
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“I took this guy to Atlantic City last night,” Assad told me that night, “and you’re not gonna believe it—he gives me a thousand-dollar tip!”
When I arrived home, the doorman was asleep. I knocked on the glass and he buzzed me in. I lived twenty-four stories up in a luxury building in Brooklyn Heights, a two-bedroom sublet I shared with another student on co-op. Most nights I’d come in, leave the lights off, and go out on the balcony to smoke and stare at the Manhattan skyline, newly broken, like a crooked jaw missing two of its teeth.
Some nights, at around four in the morning, Jay would come over. Jay was a guy I’d met through my day job, an out-of-work musician who ran errands for my boss. He was staying on a friend’s couch. My roommate didn’t much like Jay or the fact that he came over in the middle of the night, high on coke, locked out of his friend’s house, ringing our bell with nowhere else to go. Jay and I were sleeping together, but I would not say we were “dating.” We couldn’t have dated because I had a boyfriend back home—the guy I’d been dating since high school, Rick. I let Jay in because I liked the company. I liked to smoke Jay’s cigarettes and I liked that Jay needed me, if only for a place to crash.
* * *
The nonprofit where I worked, according to our mission, ran afterschool programs for economically disadvantaged girls. My job was in development, organizing fundraisers and other events—cocktail parties, mostly—where I’d get paid to dress up, drink, socialize and promote all the good work the nonprofit supposedly did. Working for this organization, I sometimes felt like I was back in the strip club, soliciting donations for a cause in which I didn’t fully believe.
At the staff meeting each week, my boss doled out our assignments. So desperate to please her, I’d volunteer for everything. I’d say “I’ll do that” and “I can do that, too” so often that Lyn would sometimes yell at me to stop. I was a good worker, possibly the best, and I needed her and everyone to know that.
But at the same time, I never felt as good as my coworkers, all native New Yorkers who’d grown up in ways I wished I had. Adriana, my immediate supervisor, was the product of private schools. Her parents were the organization’s most reliable donors. Grace, the accountant, also taught African drumming. She had the body of a dancer—thin and toned—seemingly without effort. Nancy was a mom of one of the participants. A survivor of the AIDS and crack epidemics of the eighties, she might not have had money or an education, but she was a New Yorker; she had street cred. The program director, Jenny, had grown up on the streets. An underage club kid turned junkie turned NYU grad, she was a real life character in other people’s memoirs. Her style was so copied, she no longer looked original.
Jenny once told me in polite conversation that if she’d had to grow up in Ohio, she would have killed herself—that’s how awful she imagined the Midwest to be. Even though her comment was stupid and mean, I remember thinking that Jenny was right: There was nothing more damning than having grown up in the Midwest.
At work, I kept my night job to myself. No one knew I was stripping. And no one knew I was sleeping with Jay (although in retrospect I’m sure everyone suspected it). Everyone thought that Jay was a loser. I acted as if I agreed.
Jay’s not a bad guy, I’d sometimes think to myself. He lacked steady employment and had no place to live; I didn’t particularly respect his music and I’d have died if anybody at work found out for certain that we were together. But when it was just Jay and me, I felt at ease. I felt more like myself—normal, safe—without even having to realize that I’d ever felt otherwise. I sometimes wondered what Jay thought of me, whether he liked me and wanted to be my boyfriend, and then I’d remind myself that it didn’t really matter. I already had a boyfriend. Jay knows I’m in a relationship, I’d remind myself. He knows I’m practically married and that what he and I have is simply sex. We’re just using each other, I’d think.
The fact that I was stripping was not something my mom and I talked about, not since she’d first figured out and confronted me on it. “Does Antioch know?” she had written in an email, followed by something to the effect of “should I be humiliated because everyone knows what my daughter does for a living and I’m the last to find out?” I told her she didn’t have to worry, and that I knew exactly what I was doing. For her sake, from then on, I pretended I did. It was our first and last conversation on the subject, one that had taken place mostly over email. Some months later, when I’d call home, she would want to talk about the terror alerts. She’d tell me to stay off the subway, one time suggesting that I carry pepper spray to keep from being mugged. But living in New York, I never felt unsafe.
“The world’s an unsafe place,” I’d say in a tone that let my mom know it was better not to argue.
She’d sigh and change the subject. “What are your plans for Thanksgiving?”
“Megan’s aunt is coming to visit.” I began with the truth. Then, “I’m eating with them.”
The truth was that while I’d been invited to join them, I’d begged Flash to let me work instead. The thought of spending Thanksgiving with my roommate’s family—people I didn’t even know—was worse than spending it alone.
“Have you talked to Rick lately?”
Another question that annoyed me. I called Rick every day before I left for work to ensure he wouldn’t call me later when I wasn’t there. If he did anyway, I had my roommate cover for me. I made her lie. My roommate agreed, Rick would never understand. Assad agreed that Rick could never find out. My mom told me once in passing that if Rick ever found out, he’d have no choice but to leave me. I have no choice then, I told myself. Rick can never find out.
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Whatever I say to Rick, I don’t tell him that I’m stripping and I sure as hell don’t tell him that I’m sleeping with Jay. It feels shitty to lie, but I told myself I had no choice.
I have a secret, I’d think, like the people you see on T.V.—people on shows like Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake. I have a dirty little secret, a double life, sexy and exciting, shocking but true.
Sometimes, in the mirrors of the club, I could barely recognize myself. As a result of the diet pills, I was down to 110 pounds. I had started going tanning. I dyed my brown hair blonde. In the club lights, it glowed a strange violet.
* * *
“Who’s ready for a dance?”
One guy volunteered.
“I really like this song,” I said as I took him by the hand. “I’m going to make this dance extra special.”
When I leaned into him the first time, he whispered something in my ear.
“I said, I bet you just love it in your ass.”
The job is to smile like you love it. No matter what. I gave him a smile. He smiled in return. I leaned in again and breathed heavily. “Let’s make believe that you’re my daddy.”
I felt his dick stiffen against my thigh.
What a pervert, I thought.
The truth was that they were all just like my father. Working at Flash, I sometimes thought I understood my father better than ever before. My father was the kind of man attracted to the back rooms of bars, the barn area of the track and everywhere else he had no business being. He would not change no matter how hard my mom tried. A gambler and possibly a sex addict, my father spent our family’s grocery money on whores. He was the type of sleazy character who couldn’t help but be attracted to the type of sleazy woman I’d worked so hard to become.
The song came to an end. He went for his wallet. On cue, I started getting dressed. When I went to take the money, he wouldn’t let go. He leaned in one more time, putting his mouth against my ear.
“I’m going to go home and fuck my wife,” he whispered, “and I’m going to think of you.”
I pulled away, smiling tightly, still feeling the heat from where he’d put his mouth. He let go of the money, finally, and walked away. I turned to the mirror and straightened my dress.
* * *
I grind my teeth in my sleep. In my dreams, I see myself a million times multiplied by the mirror I am dancing in. I dream that I am back in Ohio. I see Ohio from above, crisscrossed with freeways like cuts. I see myself driving in a car on a freeway, trying to escape. I am trying to escape the anxiety, which is being eaten like the miles of yellow line beneath my tires, but like the yellow line, it is never-ending. The Midwest, in my memory, goes on forever in every direction. It goes on inside of me. I am crisscrossed, scarred like a cutter. I am the smell of rubber and asphalt. I am something worthless glinting in the sun. I am the debris in the gulches on the side of the highway. I am broken glass. A blown tire. I am the cornflowers—dirty, dull, blue.
“Who’s ready for a dance?”
Not right now, honey.
Tempting, but no.
Not right now. But maybe you could tell your friend over there that I’d like to speak with her. No, not her. The other one. Yeah, her, the one with the big tits.
Right around the time my father moved out, my best friend Jenny and I started going dancing nearly every Friday night at a club called the Cosmopolitan—the Cos, we called it for short. Week after week in a different tube top and the same skintight black pants, we’d pull into a strip mall parking lot, where the club was sandwiched between a Dollar Tree and a Payless shoe store. On under-twenty-one night at the Cos, I felt so grown up, so sophisticated. Before this, Jenny had been the sexy one. I was too smart, too bookish. I tried too hard and everyone could tell. At the Cos, I discovered I could be sexy, too, just like Jenny.
When I met Rick, I stopped going out dancing. Rick went to a Catholic school and came from what I considered a good family—the kind of family that ate dinner at the dinner table and not in the living room in front of the T.V. The kind of people who said grace. The first time Rick and I went out, he brought me carnations from the supermarket where he worked as a bag boy, and we actually went out—not just to the woods to make out, but to Burger King, where he paid for my meal. After our first date, he kissed me politely on my doorstep and I had the strange sensation of being filmed, as if I was an actress and we were both following the script of a very pleasant movie. Rick was, I thought, what I’d always been looking for: a guy who could look my mother in the eye.
I felt safe with Rick. At the same time, I was always afraid our relationship wouldn’t last. I was prettier than he deserved, I often told myself, but in other ways I feared I didn’t measure up. Around Rick’s family, I was always on my best behavior. I was always afraid they’d see me for who I really was.
“Who’s ready for a dance?”
“Not right now.”
“How about you?”
The guy just ignores me; starts talking to his friend.
There’s a guy sitting at a table all by himself.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
“Yeah, actually, I do.”
Sometimes all I wished for was relief. Anxiety had become a way of life. Sometimes, just walking down the street, I would be overcome with fear. Fear that something heavy would fall on my head. Fear I’d turn the corner and—smack!—I’d walk right into something hard. I sometimes wished that it would happen already. Fall on my head, hit me, run me down—I didn’t care. I wished it would happen, whatever it was, just so the feeling would finally go away.
Sometimes I fantasized about terrible things happening. Even though they were bad, I thought of them as fantasies because it gave me pleasure to think about them. It gave me pleasure to imagine what I might do, for example, if I were truly powerless. Say, one day, Assad doesn’t show up. I’m forced to walk home alone, in the dark. I’m followed, I’m grabbed, dragged down a dark alley, and then what? I’d imagine feeling desperate, having to do despicable things. Sometimes I imagined going home with a client—a stranger—and being forced to have sex. Feeling humiliated. Despite myself, my body releasing. The fact that I had these thoughts scared me more than the idea of anything like this actually happening. I realized that having thoughts like these probably meant that I was really sick.
When I worked at Leroy’s, a strip club in Ohio, I used to fantasize about my father walking in, and what might happen if he did. I worked in southern Ohio, he lived in Kentucky—this scenario was not entirely implausible. In fact, I sometimes thought, this was the most plausible scenario for seeing my father ever again.
* * *
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?” Megan asked one more time. I did, but I couldn’t. “I can’t,” I said, “I have to go to work.”
Megan’s aunt gave me a sympathetic smile. “I really can’t believe a nonprofit would make their intern work at six o’clock on Thanksgiving.” She shook her head.
“I know,” I said. “It’s crazy.” It was crazy, literally unbelievable, and I was sure Megan’s aunt knew we were lying. “Anyway,” I stood up, suddenly eager to leave. “I’m really sorry, I have to go.”
Dodging tourists to get to work, I arrived just in time to avoid being sent home. That meant I had to pay a fine, in addition to my house fee. I started the night owing twenty-five bucks. There was no place at the mirror so I changed in a toilet stall. I got my tattoos covered and I got in line.
The place smelled like stuffing. It wasn’t in my head. “There’s a buffet,” Snow said disinterestedly, “with a real turkey and everything.” We girls, she said, were welcome to eat.
None of the other girls were eating it, so neither did I. I went back into the dressing room, where I retrieved a protein bar from my bag, which I washed down with a cup of coffee, along with my pills. Just as I was about to order an amaretto sour for dessert, a group of guys walked in. One of them offered to buy me a drink.
“To be honest I really like this song,” I said, “and I’d love if you’d take me for a dance.”
Sometimes, no matter how hard I tried, I didn’t feel beautiful. I felt dirty and gross, sexy and shameful. In some ways, these wrong feelings didn’t feel wrong. At some point, the wrong began to feel right.
My head is in his lap. I look up, eyes huge, round, and enduring. I want this man to like me, I mean really like me, and I’m feeling like he does. He looks back at me with such compassion and devotion, I feel as if my heart might explode. I travel back up his body to his neck. I lean in, my hair covering us. I smell his cologne. I feel his skin. I lean in even closer, close enough to touch. My breast falls in his mouth. I let it stay there. I feel a rush. Then, I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“The management is always watching,” the house mom said as I changed into my street clothes. “They might only be sending you home this time,” she said. “Next time, you’re through. Don’t cross them.” She lit up a smoke. “No offense, honey, but you’re replaceable. Dime a dozen. Trust me, you need them more than they need you.”
* * *
There are rules to living in New York. Rules to riding the subway. Rules to walking down the street. Rules about keeping to yourself and not staring, not asking any questions, not getting in other people’s way. You don’t, for example, stop walking in the middle of the street. Only tourists do this. You keep moving. The longer you live here, the more you learn. There are unwritten rules to sharing space in a place where space is limited. When strangers are nearly touching, there are rules to protect the parts of ourselves we wish to keep private.
When I arrived home that night the apartment was empty; my roommate was still out at dinner. I was glad. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to explain. I went into my room and pulled out my money—all the cash I’d made—which I kept in a cigar box under the bed. The smell of the cigar box reminded me of my father. I loved the way the box smelled and I loved the smell of the money, the way it felt in my hands. I counted it. I counted it again. Over ten thousand dollars. I told myself I could buy anything I wanted, anything at all.
What I wanted, at this time in my life, I couldn’t have said. I wanted to believe that at the end of the semester, everything would go back to normal and that none of this would count. I would go back to Ohio, back to Rick, back to campus, where I’d get credit for the internship and graduate that spring, the picture of my mother’s perfect daughter. I wanted to graduate, get married, and live happily ever after. Never mind that I was outgrowing the relationship and desperate to experience sexual freedom; I needed Rick. I needed to know that he loved me—I needed to believe that in his eyes I was good.
Jay and I didn’t use condoms. If you’d asked me then why I wasn’t on birth control, I might’ve said that I didn’t know where to get it. I might’ve said the pill made me sick. I’d been on the pill, I might’ve explained, and when I missed one and doubled up the next day, it made me so nauseous that I would sometimes throw up. I couldn’t remember to take a pill each day, and I didn’t like condoms. That’s what I might have said. But it was more than that. In my mind, I thought I shouldn’t have been having sex. Lying and cheating was wrong, I understood—so wrong, there was no way to make it right.
My last month in New York City, I missed my period. I took a pregnancy test in Jay’s friend’s bathroom. I sat on the toilet, staring at the cruddy powder-blue tile, waiting the agonizing minute. When the test came back negative, I felt a sense of relief so enormous that the whole ordeal almost felt pleasurable.
But two weeks later, back in Ohio, I’d take another test. I’d call Jay and tell him that I was pregnant, and he’d say something like, If you decide to keep it, I’ll be there for you and I’ll support you and your decision, and I’d say, Jesus Christ, Jay, you can’t even take care of yourself.
I was so angry, so determined to not be a child, to need no one, to hold myself together. My mom drove me to the appointment and I paid for it myself.
Narratively explores a different theme each week and publishes one story a day. More stories from “Moonlighters”: “Love & Venom” “Plight of the Porn Star,” “David Riordan, Post-Recession Renaissance Man.”
Melissa Petro writes for The Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Rumpus.net and XO Jane..More Melissa Petro.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
Salon is proud to feature content from Narratively, a digital publication devoted to untold human stories. Narratively practices "slow storytelling," exploring one theme each week and publishing just one story a day—in longform writing, short documentary films, photography and other media.