Close your eyes.
It’s the 1890s and Louisville is on top of the world. And here you are: a baron in a baron’s mansion that stands in a sea of barons’ mansions. Yours is a world of stained-glass windows, grand staircases and parlors large enough to host ensembles of the finest musicians. These are the kinds of homes you’d stick a pineapple statue in front of.
Now open your eyes. There’s a bottle of piss on the balcony. There’s a syringe in front of the fireplace. This is no American dream.
The Bravo network just released the trailer for season 18 of Top Chef, which premieres April 1 and will feature Louisville chef Edward Lee, a former contestant, on a rotating panel of judges. In this piece, published in December, Chris Kenning talked to Lee about Top Chef, frozen pizza, belting out songs while shirtless in a karaoke bar and so much more, including the struggle to survive as a restauranteur during the pandemic. Lee said, “It’s hard for me to look at any kind of expansion when I’m literally in the middle of closing restaurants and I’m in the middle of trying to help other people not to close their restaurants. And I’m seeing some having their careers basically ruined. That’s been a psychological roller coaster.”
The pandemic has affected every aspect of life in Louisville: every industry, every neighborhood, every family. So, from March through June, we interviewed folks from all walks of life about their experience of the “new normal” — respiratory therapists, hair stylists, epidemiologists, factory workers, teachers, recovering addicts, small business owners, politicians, survivors and the bereaved. The result is a four-month time capsule of life during COVID containing a wide range of perspectives, from the hospital chaplain enduring the unthinkable to the high school cafeteria manager keeping kids fed.
As his parents pulled into the driveway, Jack Harlow had a question from the backseat. He was 12. “Mom,” he said, “how do I become the best rapper in the world?” His mother had just read the book Outliers, which popularized the theory that the secret to greatness is 10,000 hours of practice. With Jack’s 18th birthday as a deadline, she did the math. For the next six years, her son would need to work on rapping for four or five hours every day.
“OK,” Jack said.
You think it’s Pinkerton up there onstage, with his new Japanese bride, the lover he’ll soon forsake. But it’s not. That’s Robert Curran, the dancer, performing Madame Butterfly in November 2011, the last season of his career. You think he’s gazing at Cio-Cio San, the character, but he’s not; he’s gazing at his dance partner, Rachel Rawlins, a woman he has danced with many times in his 16 years with the Australian Ballet, 10 as a principal artist. Yes, of course, he knows the story, the betrayal coming up, poor Cio-Cio San’s fate. He will bring all of that to life — has trained, monastically, to do so. But right now, with this pas de deux, when the two characters are about to sleep together for the first time, he has the chance to push himself into that indeterminate thing that makes true art happen: risk. For that he’ll need emotion. Real emotion. Not just Pinkerton’s, but his own. So he’s thinking about Rawlins: What can he do to surprise Rawlins? How can he make Rawlins — not Cio-Cio San, the character, but Rawlins — feel something?
A black rolling cart hauls a stack of bubble-gum-pink folders to the third floor of the Hall of Justice downtown, landing in the lap of eviction court. Below, on the first floor, the 8:45 a.m. push of people files in through metal detectors, a march of mostly reluctant faces. Deputies’ wands drift over limbs extended like starfish, beeping at pocket change, ankle monitors, belt buckles and hip replacements.
Those here for eviction court arrive on the third floor and squint at the docket taped outside the doors, checking for their name, then typically retreating to gray metal benches with holes the size of pencils. There’s a seriousness of place here: stocky granite pillars, police officers, briefcases and, beyond a corridor of courtrooms, glimpses of daylight through a set of windows.
The only abortion clinic in Louisville opens at 7:30 in the morning, and that’s when each woman, 20 or more on a busy day, is scheduled to arrive for her appointment. Five days a week for the past 17 years, Donna Durning has shown up about an hour before that. “Maybe one of the girls will come early, and I’ll have a chance to talk to her before everybody else gets here,” she says. “It’s the last chance.”
On this February Saturday, she parks her white Mercedes Benz on the street in front of E.M.W. Women’s Surgical Center, a one-story brownish-brick building on the south side of Market, between Second and First, across from a Subway and a business called Action Loan. She’d like to get a bumper sticker made for her car that asks, “Have you hugged your choice today?”