Finding Solace, In A Book Club

Robert Samuels: Robert Barksdale steps in front of the students in an English class at Eastern High School, searching for some semblance of redemption.

“For me, school is a treat because I never got to be in school, for real,” he begins. He always envisioned visiting a school to speak to students but was beginning to realize the pressures of standing in front of the classroom. He scans the room and says: “Y’all are a little intimidating.”

Barksdale was around their age when he chose the streets over school. By 16, he was arrested and convicted on armed robbery charges, the culmination of a series of ­ill-conceived attempts to be a man.

Now, at 25, he is one. But after spending so many of his formative years behind bars, he wondered: What sort of man would he be? Behind him were two former inmates. They hoped they might find the answers together.

Carrot Top In Exile

Chris Jones: Tonight is Wednesday night in Las Vegas, which means Scott Thompson has to become Carrot Top a little earlier than he does most nights. He has Tuesdays off, so yesterday he didn’t have to be Carrot Top at all if he didn’t want to be, except he left the serenity of his house to have lunch with his friend Nicolas Cage, who was wearing a white leather suit. Cage, knowing that a white leather suit has a way of changing everybody in its presence, had asked in advance whether it was okay for him to wear it, and Thompson agreed to provide the necessary counterweight. Perhaps feeling on a roll, Cage has just texted Thompson with another proposal. The rodeo is in town, and tomorrow Cage wants to go to a western-themed gift show called Cowboy Christmas to buy Thompson a pair of chaps. This time last year, Cage and Thompson stumbled into Cowboy Christmas, and Cage came out the other side in full cowboy getup, including his own pair of chaps and a southern accent that took him a long while to shake. Cage was transformed to his soul that day, and now he wants Thompson to join him in league with the horsebreakers. So tomorrow: chaps.

But first comes Wednesday. Six nights each week, 240 nights each year, the fifty-year-old Thompson appears as Carrot Top down at the Luxor, playing between Menopause the Musical (“The Hilarious Celebration of Women and the Change!”) and a burlesque show called Fantasy (“The Strip’s Biggest Tease”). And on three of those nights—Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Mondays—Thompson has to arrive early for a preshow meet and greet. His most fervent admirers pay an additional forty-nine dollars on top of their seventy-one-dollar tickets to chat with him in the theater’s lobby, take pictures with him, and get his autograph.

When Thompson surfaces from his dressing room, his personal assistant—a deeply loyal and connected forty-eight-year-old man named Jeff Molitz—is at his shoulder, as he almost always is. Molitz, nicknamed Porno Jeff because of some work he does on the side, is short and bearded, with a long ponytail and a closet filled with Carrot Top–branded clothing. “It’s the uniform,” Porno Jeff says. They met through Porno Jeff’s local Mail Boxes Etc. franchise, which Thompson sometimes used to ship his trunks of comedic props, including what he calls Hugh Hefner’s walker (it has a big dildo taped to the front of it) and Rosie O’Donnell’s buffet tray (there are five of them). Nine years ago, Porno Jeff became Thompson’s full-time assistant, and he has since evolved from Man Friday into celebrity-by-proxy. He hosts a Super Bowl party at his house that has become massive enough that Monster Energy drinks and Kraft Nabisco sponsor it; he calls up a picture on his phone of the more than two thousand packets of Kool-Aid that arrived earlier today.

Gives, And Takes Away

Leah Sottile: CALDWELL, Idaho — In the heart of the Northwest, there is Idaho. And in the heart of Idaho, there is God. And God, residents believe, blesses some and takes others away early.

Like Neil Jacob Randolph, a 3-year-old buried in Peaceful Valley Cemetery in Caldwell in 1982. “Sleep on sweet Neil — and take thy rest,” his headstone reads. “God called thee home. He thought it best.”

In another row are the graves of four infants marked with identical headstones on which “Infant Bailey” is hand-scrawled in capital letters — pressed into wet cement decades ago.

Many of the nearly 600 people buried here were Followers of Christ — a Christian sect that believes in faith healing and does not allow members — including sick children — to see doctors or use modern medicine. The Pentecostal religion, founded in the 1930s, has long had a presence in Western states. Former members say the church has become increasingly secretive about its beliefs and population after years of negative attention for deaths related to spiritual healing.

Several of the children buried here at Peaceful Valley Cemetery died from preventable ailments like pneumonia and food poisoning. And 70 percent of these children died after 1972, when religious exemptions protecting faith healers from charges of neglect, abuse and murder were enacted in Idaho and around the country. If a child dies or is abused in Idaho, law states that a parent can’t be found guilty if they believe in spiritual healing.

Business, Man

Liam Dillon: On a late Friday afternoon in February 2011, dozens of police officers carrying assault rifles arrived at Sempra Energy’s $1 billion liquefied natural gas plant on the coast of Baja California, Mexico.

The officers, dressed in ski masks and body armor, cut the chains on the plant’s gates. Once they had broken in, the police put their own seals on the gates.

The cops drove down a winding road through brown, brush-filled hillside. Just before reaching the facility’s entrance, the officers passed a swath of land that looked as barren and uninhabited as its surroundings.

That piece of property wasn’t as innocuous as it seemed.

Five years earlier, Sempra had purchased title to the land. The transaction was one of the final pieces to build its plant, a facility that would allow the company to pump imported gas to millions of homes and businesses on both sides of the border. But a rancher believed the land was his and accused Sempra of knowingly buying a fake deed to steal it from him. He was fighting to get the land back. The mayor of Ensenada had listened to the rancher’s complaint, and eventually sent the city’s police force to storm the Sempra plant.

At first glance, this looks like your typical David-vs.-Goliath tale: a large American company against a lone Mexican landowner. But it’s not that simple.

The Red Tent

Lane DeGregory: LARGO

Two afternoons a week, after lunch, before laundry duty, a dozen women at the Pinellas County Jail leave their pods and thread down a long, dark corridor — through 10 locked doors, past a guard station, into a space they call the Red Tent Room.

Here, the air smells like coffee and sugar cookies. Norah Jones sings softly through portable speakers. Beside wide windows, next to the sewing machines, scarlet hibiscus bloom in the winter sun.

“Welcome! Welcome!” calls Polly Edwards, an artist who helps lead the group.

“Coffee or tea?” asks inmate Jamie Ward, 31, who has taken on the role of host.

The women wear gray scrubs. Some sport remnants of their former lives: chipped manicures and faded hair highlights. Most have lost their jobs, their homes, their children. Some have husbands who won’t speak to them. All their moms are mad. They are serving up to a year for doing drugs, shoplifting, violating probation. Many have been in this jail before. But here in a converted classroom, for a few hours each week, they escape the noise, the guards — for some, even the shame of their convictions — and feel the acceptance of other women.

“Almost all of them are in the system because they endured some early trauma,” says therapist Barbara Rhode, who founded the group. “In general, about 15 percent of people have PTSD. In jail, at least 70 percent of the women have it.”

Rhode volunteered with prisoners while she was in college studying family counseling. Later, she helped women at Goodwill who had just gotten out of jail. Three years ago, she read the novel The Red Tent, about biblical women who gathered in their own oasis during menstruation, childbirth and old age. “A safe space,” Rhode called it. “Where women came to help each other heal.”

She decided she needed to do something for Pinellas County’s broken women, to help them end their cycles of abuse and addiction, to enable them to be better mothers. “Most of the people I see in private practice have problems, but their lives are pretty manageable,” says Rhode. “These women are raw and hurt. They feel guilty and ashamed about what they have done and unworthy of respect or love. There’s a profound sadness about them. They need support.”