Setting Times stories to music: From Interpol to Bruce Springsteen

Setting Times stories to music: From Interpol to Bruce Springsteen
Denis Contreras, at age 12 awakens after sleeping in a gravel-filled hopper car in a Tapachula, Mexico, railroad yard on Aug 1, 2000. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Have you seen the movie "Boyhood"? Filmed over 12 years using the same actor -- a boy who grows into a man -- it's both epic and intimate.

One of this week's Great Reads is like a Central American immigrant's version of "Boyhood," and it, too, is both epic and intimate.


Fourteen years ago, photographer Don Bartletti rode the freight train that immigrants call "The Beast" with a 12-year-old Honduran named Denis. The boy was traveling all alone, carrying only a few pesos in a matchbox, trying to reach his mother "in the state of Los Angeles."

Over the years, Bartletti would catch up with Denis, and with his camera document the boy growing into a man. Denis found his mother, but there were no happy endings. This summer, Bartletti tracked him down in his hometown in Honduras – the world's murder capital. Denis had been deported, and he wished he had never taken the Beast to America.

What I love about the photos are that you can still see the sweet boy in the man's face, even though life has already left him wary and filled with regret.

In these roundups of the week gone by, I'd like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they're known in print, Column One) -- maybe they'll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you'll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story soundtrack!


What kind of prison might the inmates design?

The workshop leaders came laden with markers in colors other than red and blue (gang colors), drafting rulers crafted from museum board (too dull to double as weapons) and kiddie scissors (ditto).

All the students wore orange. And on this final day, their paper models were taking shape.

Architect Deanna VanBuren adjusted a piece of tracing paper over Anthony Pratt's design, showing him how to mark the perimeter to show walls and windows, then urging him to use dots to indicate open spaces.

A towering, broad-chested man with full tattoos adorning both arms, Pratt, 29, was among those sketching out new visions: an airy room with a skylight to cure vitamin D deficiencies and a fountain with a cascading waterfall to represent resilience and adaptability. Privacy barriers for the shower and toilet. A healing center with lots of windows and, in the middle, a talking circle with a sun emblazoned in its center.

The spaces they were planning could be at a New Age retreat, but these were conceived by inmates at San Francisco's County Jail No. 5.

Most inmates on this 48-man jail pod are awaiting trial on violent crimes. All must agree to participate in a program called "Resolve to Stop the Violence," which involves concepts of restorative justice, an alternative to traditional criminal justice that focuses on healing victims and offenders alike. This day's class allowed them to explore their feelings about the system that landed them here and how its physical contours might be altered.

As Pratt stippled his drawing with concentration, Keith Wilkins, 25, painstakingly cut the waterfall for the 3D model. Both are facing murder charges. Lamar Paschall, 32, charged with kidnapping, rape and robbery, helped with the trees.


Some of their models are fanciful — individual cells with Internet connections and even outdoor decks exist in Norway but aren't likely to become part of U.S. prison design any time soon. Others, such as peace-making centers where agreement on punishment is reached collaboratively without entering a courtroom, are already becoming a reality.

"I feel an extra sense of purpose today," Paschall had told his fellow classmates as the workshop got underway. "Hopefully this can become fruitful and turn into something real down the line."

#soundtrack: “Not Even Jail,” by Interpol. Sorry I’m missing them at the FYF festival this weekend.


U.S. Embassy worker undaunted by Taliban attack, injuries

Lying in a ditch, his head throbbing from the bomb blast, Abbas Kamwand wiggled his toes. He was shocked to discover that he still could.

An Afghan soldier grabbed his hand and helped him up. Around him, vehicles lay mangled, and dark smoke climbed to the sky. He noticed the body of a young State Department colleague splayed facedown in the dirt.

Kamwand limped over and placed his hands under her belly to lift her up. He raised her a few inches before realizing that her bloodied left leg still lay on the ground, apparently severed in the blast. Soldiers shouted at him to take cover, that another bomb could strike.

The April 6, 2013, suicide car bombing in the southern town of Qalat left three U.S. soldiers, a Pentagon interpreter, an Afghan doctor and the 25-year-old diplomat, Anne Smedinghoff, dead.

Kamwand had joined the U.S. Embassy in Kabul just months earlier as its only native-born spokesman — the State Department's Afghan face — after three decades in America. The 58-year-old was seriously wounded: an 8-inch gash on his left leg, a 5-inch wound on his right, with shrapnel piercing his eye, ear and the nerves along his forehead.

After emergency treatment, he was evacuated home to the Kansas City area, where he and his wife, Hosnia, have lived since fleeing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He required seven surgeries and skin grafts to his leg, and doctors say he needs at least two more procedures to remove remaining shrapnel. Because of nerve damage, he has all but lost his sense of smell.
Yet seven months after the attack, Kamwand was back at his desk inside the fortress-like embassy compound in Kabul.

For a diplomatic corps still reeling from the loss of the only State Department officer to die in the Afghan war, his return in November was an emotional one.

"My thought personally was that, yes, it's a reality of life that you've been hard hit, you've fallen, but you're not going to make that part of your life forever," Kamwand said. "To me, coming back was a personal statement to the enemy that they tried, but they failed."

#soundtrack: "Unbeaten and Unbowed," by the Selecter. Hadn't listened to this band in ages. Yep, still good.


Luxembourg premier joins vanguard of gay leaders

The remarkable thing when this tiny nation legalized same-sex marriage in June wasn't that the conservative-leaning prime minister, Xavier Bettel, supported the new law.
It was that he might be among the first to take advantage of it.

Bettel and his partner, architect Gauthier Destenay, probably will tie the knot sometime soon. "He asked me, and I said yes," the 41-year-old prime minister said with an impish grin. "I can't give you the date, because it's not official yet."

He took office in December, after an election campaign in which his sexuality was neither a secret nor an issue. Bettel had opened up about his private life when he was a Luxembourg city councilman, acknowledging his sexual orientation on a radio talk show. (Asking the DJ to play a song by gay pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, "The Power of Love," sealed matters.)

"I have just one life, and I don't want to hide my life," Bettel said in an interview here in his office. "But I was not the 'gay candidate.' … People didn't vote for me because I'm gay or I'm straight."


Nevertheless, he is a pioneer on one of the last frontiers of gay visibility: a politician who not only wins office but also makes it all the way to the top. Since 2009, three have achieved that milestone; the others are Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo of Belgium and former Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir of Iceland.

#soundtrack: "The Power of Love," by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Had to go with this song, which is name-checked so amusingly in the story, even though it's no "Relax" (and the video is pretty cheesy).


At Bela and Martha Karolyi's retreat, gymnastics charges ahead

Afternoon descends on the piney woods of East Texas with a heat that clings to your skin, the air so thick you have to work at drawing a full breath.

Not that the owner of the Karolyi Ranch seems to mind as he bounces along in a utility vehicle that looks like a supercharged golf cart, its knobby tires encrusted with mud.

Bela Karolyi steers toward a sparkling body of water just beyond the trees and launches into a story about how he dug the lake himself, learning to drive a bulldozer and pushing dirt for six months.

"I'm good at it," he says. "I love it."

Every bit the gentleman rancher in khaki pants and a red-checked shirt, Bela stops at the shore. Catfish — fat and black, as long as a man's arm — gather near the surface to gobble chunks of homemade sausage he feeds them as treats.

"Hey, guys," he says. "Big suckers."

Much of the world remembers this man as the Romanian gymnastics coach who guided Nadia Comaneci to a perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. After his defection to the U.S., he molded a new generation of American stars that included Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal and Kerri Strug.

His voice remains strong, his words still full of gravel, but age has turned that bushy mustache to white. In recent years, Bela has traded Olympic glory for another sort of passion.
"We're in the boonies," he says gleefully. "The middle of Mother Nature."

#soundtrack: "Out of the City (Into Country Life)," by Allen Toussaint. What a great groove this song has. (I'm sorry, but I couldn't find a video of it on YouTube.)


Denis taught me how to tame "The Beast." He was 12. I was 52.

We met in a rail yard in Tapachula, Mexico, not far from the Guatemalan border. I had slung two cameras over my back and climbed the iron rungs to the top of a hopper car. I peered over and saw Denis curled up on a bed of gravel. His mattress was crumpled paper, his blanket an oversize pullover with a green collar.

A single click of my camera startled him awake. He stood up on his mattress. He looked like a kitten stretching and yawning.

It was the summer of 2000, and I was there to document the journey of the stowaways who rode the freight train that lurched northward through the soggy Mexican countryside. Migrants called it The Beast — a machine that would mutilate those who slipped or carry the lucky ones to El Norte.

Denis — his last name was Contreras — shoved his hand into the pocket of blue trousers that still had a crease down the center of each leg. He yanked out a little matchbox. He slid it open to reveal a few matches, several Mexican peso coins and a folded scrap of paper. He wanted me to read it.

Written on the paper was his mom's 10-digit phone number.

"I want to see my mother because I don't know her," he said. "I want to see her face. She lives in the state of Los Angeles."

Lesson No. 1. How to jump onto The Beast.

You have to run the same speed as the train. Grab the ladder on the front of the train car. That way if you slip, you can pull your legs off the track before the wheels come. If you grab the ladder on the back end and you fall, the wheels of the next train car are so close they'll chop off your legs. I've seen it!

#soundtrack: “Land of Hope and Dreams,” by Bruce Springsteen. I’m not sure when a song fit a story better. “Big wheels roll through fields/Where sunlight streams/Oh meet me in a land of hope and dreams.” But actually the whole song’s lyrics fit.


If you have ideas for story soundtracks of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATgreatreads with the hashtag #soundtrack.