Ariel Sabar: “I wanted someone you’d never find in the anecdotal lede of a newspaper story”

By Jack Limpert

Ariel Sabar is getting attention for his new book Veritas: A Harvard professor, a con man and the gospel of Jesus’s wife. In 2014, Sabar wrote a prize-winning article for the Washingtonian magazine that was very unlike the usual magazine profile. Here’s what he said when we talked about it.

“A Long Way Home,” is about Meguiel Merritt, a man who has held a steady job for many years but has had some stumbles and now lives in a homeless shelter. While the 52-year-old African-American man’s life seems to be going nowhere, he is increasingly surrounded by new condos, bars, and restaurants filled with young, ambitious achievers. Some striking contrasts, some rich territory for a writer.

Q: How did you decide to write about Meguiel Merritt?

A: I tried to set something of a high bar for myself in choosing Meguiel. I wanted someone whom you’d never find in the anecdotal lede of a newspaper story: the cherry-picked almost too-good-to-be-true folks that reporters deploy to give a human face to their stories, often once they’ve already got their angle. There’s a kind of shorthand some news stories will use to gloss over the parts of their subject’s life that—if really looked at closely—might take away from the saintly portrait. It’s often just a clause: “After a battle with substance abuse and a few youthful brushes with the law…” I wanted to explore those struggles up close and in detail. It may have made Meguiel a bit less sympathetic to some readers, but I felt it was a truer portrayal of the challenges men like Meguiel face in turning around their lives.

Q: Why a man?

A: It would have been easy to write about a little kid or a single mom and her children, for whom there’s a kind of automatic sympathy. It might have also been easy to write about someone who had done everything right but was still homeless. But I’m not sure that would have been intellectually honest. A great mass of people struggling for basic needs in DC are more like Meguiel: people with some fumbles in their past who are trying later in life to finally get things right. I realized readers would be harder on men, who are after all supposed to be breadwinners.

Q: To what extent did you want Meguiel to represent something greater than himself?

A: I didn’t mean the piece to be a polemic or a policy argument. I wanted it to be a somewhat raw portrait of a DC native, however imperfect, who is on the outside of all the hoopla celebrated by the city’s cheerleaders: the new bars, expensive restaurants, condos, trolleys, gourmet ramen shops.

What does life look like if that world is creeping up on your backyard, but is one that you’ll never have the means to enter? I kept the data and expert quotes to a minimum, because then you’re making your subject “stand for” something. I think that’s a lot to ask one subject to do. Still, I wanted some guideposts: some figures on housing costs; the fact that there are now many employed but homeless folks in DC; the growing income gap; the common fates facing many single, lower-income black men in their 50s. I wanted readers to have at least a small map as they navigated Meguiel’s story.

Q: He shows up at work, he prays, he does too much for his kids. But then the alcohol, drugs, not paying his rent. Despite all that he had a successful mother who tried to help him, he had a job where they tried to help him. I came away thinking that as a writer you were too easy on him by seeming to blame the city as a place where people like him no longer got second chances.

A: You may be right: perhaps I should have said third or fourth or fifth chances. I didn’t count the help he got when he was younger and on drugs. By second chances, I meant the period after he got clean and sober, was moving up in his career, and trying at last to do right by the kids he’d abandoned.

America has always believed in second chances, in the possibility of renewal and redemption. For Merritt, at age 52, life should finally be getting easier. But it’s not. And it’s not in part because however hard he tries, DC’s  “recovery”—it surging affluence and shifting demographics —is happening far faster than his. Like New York City, perhaps, DC is no longer a place that is easy, financially, on people who aren’t firing on all cylinders.

Q: What kind of reaction did you get to the piece?

A: Maybe it’s a failing, but I never like to hit readers over the head with billboards or “messages.” I like certain stories to allow some freedom of interpretation—so that readers have agency and can see a story through the prism of their own lives. I’ve seen some of that in the reaction to this piece. Some readers really sympathized with him. Others said, This guy is unworthy, he’s lazy, he screwed up too many times, he had it coming.

Advocates for the homeless and poor saw it as an argument for more affordable housing and help for lower-income workers. A national group that presses Americans to save more retweeted the story several times, apparently because they saw Meguiel as someone who started to recover only once he began socking money away for the lean times.

A local African-American author wrote to thank me for a “respectful” portrayal of what he described as “every day life for far too many people who struggle in what we call the greatest country in the world.” And the librarian at an elite DC private school asked for permission to use it with an 8th grade class that is reading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. “Because that book illustrates dreams of having a ‘real’ home,” the librarian wrote, “I thought this article would be a highly relevant nonfiction complement for us to discuss.” I called Meguiel with some trepidation a few weeks after it ran, and he called the piece “beautiful,” which meant a lot to me.

Q: Was this  different from other profiles you’ve written?

A: In some ways, yes. I do less interpreting, less shaping. Whether it succeeded or not, in this case, seemed to be in the eyes of the reader.

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