On the day before the Fourth of July, I meet Alexis Johnson and her boyfriend, Matt Wubbolt, in the parking lot of a photography studio in Scranton, Pennsylvania. While many people are likely celebrating the holiday weekend on a boat, at a barbecue or with a beer in hand, reveling in the favorable forecast and series of fireworks displays, Alexis is focusing her pride elsewhere. The 33-year-old plans to use her independence to replicate the downward spiral of an addict in a carefully thought-out photo shoot with Lisa Petz.
“It seems almost every day I see people dying of overdoses on the news,” Alexis says.
“I’m outraged. I want other people to be outraged. People need to visualize what an overdose looks like, not just see words across a TV screen or a headline in the newspaper. Just talking about it isn’t helping. Maybe being able to see that extreme horror of how it goes down will wake people up and encourage young people to not pick up that first drug or drink.”
Alexis is all but familiar with the unnerving epidemic of drug-related deaths in the United States. Since 2010, she lost eight of her closest friends to overdoses. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports in 2014 — the most recent year for which data is available — prescription painkillers and heroin alone were responsible for 28,847 deaths. That’s a rate that has tripled since 2000.
We walk three flights of steps to Lisa’s studio as Alexis expresses gratitude for not being one of the many who succumb to addiction. She has spent the past 15 years shifting back and forth between sobriety and abusing heroin, crack, ecstasy, cocaine, alcohol and “just about every painkiller you can think of,” she says. What started as an eagerness to fit into the party-culture with her sorority sisters at Penn State University instantly expanded into a habit that plagued the shit out of her self-restraint and lead to seven overdoses between 2010 to 2015.
I watch Matt apprehend the vulnerable side of the “strong and beautiful” woman he has been dating for two months as makeup artist, Mel Gonzalez, cosmetically applies busted veins on her right arm to imitate the injection of heroin. He has only heard stories of Alexis’ past. I ask if he looks at her differently after seeing her this way. He says yes.
“To relive the lowest part of your life all over again to try to help people — that’s bravery. That’s strength. I’m proud of her and I love her more right now,” he says. “Watching what she actually went through just opens my eyes. Beneath the makeup and the beautiful hair, there can be a powerful struggle that people don’t see.”
Alexis wants people to look at the stereotype of an addict differently. She’s passionate about having her hair, makeup and outfit on fleek as the shoot begins.
“I want people to see that addiction can affect anybody,” she says. “It could be your son or daughter, your brother or sister, your friend, your doctor, your child’s teacher. Sometimes it’s the people who appear to have it all who are really dying on the inside. Addiction doesn’t discriminate. People discriminate against people with addiction. The stereotype needs to be smashed. An addict doesn’t always look like the homeless man underneath the bridge. I hid my addiction very well.”
Mel finishes Alexis’ makeup for a scene where she pretends to snort cocaine. We discuss how Alexis camouflaged her struggles.
“If people don’t want to look like themselves, they can hide it,” Mel says. “Makeup is a very powerful tool. It an be used to enhance beauty. It can be used to mask pain, struggles and addiction.”
The conversation slows down as the scenes get more graphic. The element of reality appears to be daunting everyone’s mind. Alexis lays on the floor. Lisa places rose petals around her lifeless body. Bags of powder, a spoon and needle symbolically gesture the tragic loss of a beautiful human life. Once Lisa gets the shots she needs, Matt helps Alexis up from the floor. Tears start swelling her eyes.
“It disgusts me that my dad had to find me like this,” she says. “Nobody should ever have to find someone looking like this. Somewhere this is happening to someone right now. It breaks my heart.
Alexis wipes the tears from her face. Her appreciation for life is reinforced.
“I’m alive,” she reminds herself out loud. “It’s a miracle.”
Scranton’s mayor drops out of debate, dismisses millennial population
Scranton’s mayor, Bill Courtright, dropped out of a debate with candidates Jim Mulligan and Gary St. Fleur at the eleventh hour. A campaign spokesperson cited “scheduling conflicts” Tuesday in an email, despite committing 8 days earlier.
The debate is the first opportunity for the candidates to take questions together directly from the voters. It is also the first-ever time Scranton’s candidates for mayor will unite to address concerns made by the youngest voters — millennials. The League of Women Voters of Lackawanna County hosted a debate last week, but refused to allow live-streaming, making the debate less accessible to young people.
Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor with 30 years of experience as a political media consultant, says it’s not uncommon for an incumbent mayor to avoid a debate.
“There’s really two reasons a candidate would not want to appear,” said Berkovitz in a phone call to Better than the Weekend. “One. He or she knows they are way ahead. They’re most likely to win the election, so they don’t have a lot to gain and they have a lot to lose. Why give a platform to your opponents and allow them a chance to score some points? Number two. There’s some kind of scandal or problem that he or she doesn’t want to bring to the forefront.”
Both are possible reasons Courtright dropped out of the upcoming debate. In 2013, Courtright, a Democrat, defeated Jim Mulligan, the same Republican nominee he’s running against this time around. He’s likely confident his supporters will turn out to hand him another victory. In terms of a scandal, a Lackawanna County judge recently ruled Scranton overtaxed residents and is in violation of state law. Jesse Chobey, a millennial Scranton voter, is convinced Courtright doesn’t want to put himself in another position to answer to a crime crippling his constituents.
“Courtight’s whole term as mayor of Scranton was spent stealing money off the tax payers and now he’s a coward and can’t face up to what he did. Bottom line,” said Chobey.
Dropping out “is not good democracy, but it’s good political strategy,” said Berkovitz.
Mike Milani feels Courtright’s sudden scheduling conflict is irresponsible and sends a message affirming millennials have no future in Scranton.
“Let’s just give the guy the benefit of the doubt and say there is a scheduling conflict,” said Milani. “You mean to tell me it took days for his campaign to realize he can’t attend? That just shows how sloppy local government is under his scrambled leadership.”
After moving to Scranton from Baltimore, Maryland to attend Lackawanna College in 2011, Milani said he struggled for six years to succeed in the area before making the decision to move to Dallas, Texas this year.
“There was no opportunity for me unless I married into one of the monarch families of NEPA,” said Milani. “There’s too much nepotism for outsiders to come here and succeed. I knew someone who got arrested by a cop, was legally represented by his brother, and the judge was the father. That’s seriously fucked up and sounds like something that would happen in a farm town in Kentucky, not a city with more than 70,000 people living there. The only good jobs are local government jobs. Small businesses can’t thrive in the area. Money isn’t spent on attracting educated entrepreneurs. People should look at the budget. Too much money is spent on a failing criminal system with a recidivism rate through the roof. It’s crazy.” While Pennsylvania recidivism rates are dropping to a historic low, Lackawanna County is jailing people at twice the national average.
Milani said he’s not surprised the mayor dropped out of a debate targeting millennial issues because he doesn’t believe Courtright would know what to say to young people calling out the city’s lack of opportunity.
“The young people in Scranton should pack their bags and run now if they want a chance at any kind of future,” he said.
Republican candidate Jim Mulligan and Gary St. Fleur, running on a write-in campaign, feel differently about the fate of the Electric City. They see the potential in Scranton with new leadership and will be addressing concerns when millennials take charge at Thursday’s town hall.
Any millennial voter (born in or after 1981) in Scranton can attend the debate by sending an RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org with their name, contact information and question to the candidates. For those who can’t attend, questions can still be submitted by email and on Facebook.com/betterthantheweekend by commenting on the post announcing the event.
The debate will be hosted by Better than the Weekend at the Hilton Scranton & Conference Center and will be live-streamed at 7:30 p.m. on Facebook.com/betterthantheweekend.
Better than the Weekend hopes Courtright will once again change his mind and prove he is willing to prioritize concerns of millennials by participating in the debate but is still looking forward to hearing from anyone running for mayor willing to talk about the future of the city with the future of the city.
Scranton’s candidates for mayor to face off in millennial town hall
Millennials will have a chance to address their concerns for the future of Scranton, Pennsylvania in a first-ever town town hall debate solely catering to the youngest voters in the Electric City. Better than the Weekend is hosting the event Thursday, November 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hilton Scranton & Conference Center. All three candidates who participated in the first mayoral debate on Oct. 25 — Democratic nominee Bill Courtright, Republican nominee Jim Mulligan, and write-in candidate Gary St. Fleur — have agreed to participate and look forward to validating the concerns of young voters.
Despite how divided the United States is when it comes to political issues, America remains the highest hope for all who cherish free speech and open debate. When the League of Women Voters of Lackawanna County last week refused to allow Better than the Weekend to live-stream the mayoral debate between the candidates in Scranton, I felt like I was in North Korea. Or some alternate universe in Rick and Morty.
While the LWV of Lackawanna County says they’re open to live streaming in the future, that doesn’t help the voting public now. Only 20 percent of registered voters in Scranton voted for a mayoral candidate in the primaries. Something needs to happen to stimulate a higher voter turnout. Restricting a debate’s accessibility is not only reckless — it builds a wall between the candidates and the citizens they wish to lead.
While past elections have shown young people are less likely to vote, the all throat and no vote reputation is expiring. Millennials are fed up with the broken social contract around college, which no longer functions as an automatic elevator to indulging middle-class comfort. Young people are crippled by the fall in wage growth. More connected than any other generation in history, millennials put social unrest on blast and spark conversations with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of instant allies. We’re woke and we’re not backing down.
Seemingly out of touch with the way our country is moving forward and the modern means to live up to their core principles and democratic responsibility of engaging the public with local government, the LWV of Lackawanna County inspired Better than the Weekend to step up and host a town hall where millennials could take the lead.
The first 40 millennials to RSVP by sending an email to email@example.com will be welcomed to attend the town hall. The RSVP email must include their full name, age, cell phone number, name as appears on Facebook, Instagram name and question directed at all candidates. Facebook and Instagram information will be used to screen participants and assure they’re millennials from Scranton.
Even those who can’t attend are encouraged to email a question or post it on Facebook.com/betterthantheweekend by leaving a comment on the post featuring this article. For those who can’t attend, the debate will be live-streamed on Facebook.com/betterthantheweekend. The video will still be up on the page after it is filmed. Not all questions will be guaranteed to be addressed. Better than the Weekend and the candidates will try to get as many concerns addressed as possible.
A special millennial town hall happy hour will take place at PJ’s Pub inside the Hilton from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. leading up to the debate.
Further questions about the event are encouraged and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For now, spread the word and be heard.
Father to daughter: An open letter to Lindsay Lohan from her dad
My Dearest Lindsay,
Well the The Parent Trap is over. You’re 12 years old now, yet while you have an old soul, your life has only begun. I’ve been around the block a few times, Linds, and I’ve lived your life twice over. I write this thinking of the days gone by, how you got here today and what the future holds for you. I’m trying to find the words. Words with meaning and deep rooted truth that will stay with you forever. Words that will guide you and express my feelings toward you. Words like love, forgiveness, sacrifice, strength, hope and faith. Words like gifted, a blessing and the natural beauty you are. Words that are kind, thoughtful, generous and touch the heart in wonderful ways. But beware, my darlin’, because there will be times when people come at you because of all the wonderful things you are, and they will use words in ways that aren’t so kind.
When a father has a daughter like you, who has accomplished so much at such an early age, it’s scary, but he also realizes she’s just as strong as he is. A force to be reckoned with. A soul on fire, just like your hair, with the same strength and passions as any man I’ve ever met.
Like you sweetheart, words do have strength of their own, and maybe, just maybe, my words as a father will be louder and resinate more than the words of the world. Maybe my words can deliver to you a deep, unshakeable sense of your own worthiness and beauty.
Your gifts are a blessing, honey, and you have a great responsibility to use them in the best of ways. As I told you, God says, “Where there is much given, there’s much required,” and if not used the right way, “What God gives you, He will take away.” I hope those words find a place deeply tucked in your heart. Your talent is a force to be reckoned with. So when options come your way that can distract your work, always choose your talent. Your talent will inspire people. It will force people to feel things like laughter, joy and the feeling of not being alone. But if you don’t keep your talent on top of the list of priorities, it will be taken away. After all, you know how often that has happened to me.
Also realize that there will be bumps in the road because of life and no one is perfect. God knows, I’ve been there as well. The important part is that when a rough patch comes and if you fall off the horse, that you get back on so the horse doesn’t run too far away. Use your strength to get up, dust it off and continue in the right direction. You have the reins in your hands, honey, but let God be your driving force in the pursuit of your dreams.And when it comes to your dreams, choose them wisely, and not from a department store shelf, a book or someone else’s thoughts of what you should do or where you should go. Live your life like your heart tells you with the wholehearted consideration of what God whispers in your ear. That whisper, honey, is your conscience, and it will guide you. Find the still-quiet place within you and never lose it. A real dream has been planted there.
May your strength be in your heart, may you discern in your heart who you are, and then may you boldly, but carefully, live it out in the world to the best of your ability. Be the kind, loving and ageless soul that you are and make a difference in wonderful ways.
From my heart to yours,
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