I was born and raised in Germany and immigrated to New York two months before 9/11. I was ready, but New York was not. I chose New York because it was known for its determination, industriousness, and speed, (and, of course, its neuroticism). I was practically raised by Woody Allen and share these qualities. But now that I had “come home,” New York lay in ashes. Unlike most New Yorkers, I had a hard time dusting myself off and picking myself back up. For a long time I remained paralyzed. I half-heartedly applied for jobs I didn’t want, and because I couldn’t find work I started to take pictures of people sleeping in public places. The city was a carousel that seemed to spin faster each day, and I envied those sleepers who had allowed themselves to check out. I wanted to sleep and never wake up.
When I finally did find work, it wasn’t what I had hoped for. For three years I taught poor inner city students to write and take photographs. Few of them appreciated my two-hour commute to New York’s and Newark’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods. The children had bigger problems. It seemed that the sense of social defeat passed on to them by previous generations was so intense that it was impossible to shed within a single lifetime. More often than not my students were raised by their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, or in foster families; their fathers were mostly absent, many of them in prison. The few hours I would see my students each week did not allow me to break through to them.
Having written for German newspapers in the past but lacking a solid knowledge of American journalism, I decided to go to school. Robert Boynton, the director of NYU’s magazine journalism program, had just come out with The New New Journalism. Boynton had interviewed 19 literary journalists about their craft, among them Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Susan Orlean, Alex Kotlowitz, and Jon Krakauer. These writers, along with their forebears Joseph Mitchell, George Orwell, Marvel Cooke, Susan Sheehan, and Truman Capote, became my heroes. Proposing to write about New York’s unemployed, I applied to Boynton’s honors class and was accepted.
In late 2005 I set out to learn what New Yorkers who don’t work do with their time. This marked the beginning of my descent into the Byzantine system of New York’s job readiness programs. Over the course of the next several years I talked to the clients and staff of organizations with Pollyanna-ish names like STRIVE (Support and Training Results in Valuable Employees), CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities), and the Fortune Society. Most clients of the Fortune Society, STRIVE, and CEO were people with extensive rap sheets—and most were out of luck. Few had ever learned to strive for anything, and it is safe to assume that neither will they ever become CEOs.