How To Parent From Prison And Other Advice For Life Inside

(Left) Johnathon Shillings, 28, just completed a five-year sentence and was reunited with his 8-year-old daughter, Victoria. (Right) Macario Gonzales, 27, shown with his 2-year-old daughter, Mackelsey, has just started to serve a seven-year sentence in Texas state prison.

Courtesy of Johnathon Shillings and Macario Gonzales

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Courtesy of Johnathon Shillings and Macario Gonzales

When you’re facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who has already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they’re letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

About six years ago, Johnathon Shillings was on trial for his involvement in the homicide of a man in Harris County, Texas. The now-28-year-old, who had already been to prison twice before, pled guilty to helping transport and dump the victim’s body. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

During those five years, Johnathon says something in him changed. This time, he had a little daughter — Victoria — to think about.

So in prison, he decided to change things: He worked on his anger issues, he enrolled in an entrepreneurship program. And he kept in touch with his daughter.

Are you about to undergo a major life change, like starting your own business or deploying overseas in the military? Or have you gone through one already? All Things Considered invites you to share your experience, either to ask questions or pass on your own lessons learned. Email us at nprcrowdsource@npr.org, with “Been There” in the subject line.

There are a lot of people who go to prison who want to do what Johnathon did: change their lives, leave prison and never go back.

Like Johnathan, Macario Gonzales Jr. is a father, to two young daughters. He’s also serving prison time — he just began a seven-year sentence for multiple drug charges and an assault on a police officer that occurred during an arrest.

And like Johnathan, Macario wants to turn his life around in prison.

“Gangster life, it’s not me,” Macario tells Johnathan.

One way to help himself get through it and stay focused, says Johnathan, is to “be confident that your mistake was just a mistake, and it’s not gonna define you. And that there’s life for you and your children past this point.”


Advice from Johnathon Shillings

On what the first day is like

Soon as you get there, they’re going to strip you down, butt naked. You’re going to be in a big, massive room, probably a warehouse-type gym, concrete, with a whole bunch of individual cages. Then, they’re going to start pushing you in there — 10 or 15 at a time. Slowly, they’re going to start calling your name, everybody go take a shower. And the first thing they’re gonna do is give you a razor … and they shave your whole head. … Probably about 85 percent of the time, they miss patches and spots.

Then after that, they push you down even further down the assembly line, and there’s gonna be a guard there, and he’s gonna go through all your property. And it’s crazy, these are your only belongings that you have: pictures, letters, your Bible. You’ll see how these officers just pick it up and toss it and say, “You have too many pictures, throw this over here into the trash.” And there is nothing you can do about it.

On how people are perceived in prison

If you go in there, you prove as an authentic person, like, “I’m just a man that made a mistake and I’m changing my life” — prison is so sensitive to feelings and auras, they can pick up on that, like, this is a really genuine person. And so we’re not going to push these prison ways on him.

On how to not be a target

There are predators in prison. … The ones they mostly prey on are ones who are really, really friendly. Sharing all your commissary. You met somebody at the domino table and you’re like, “Hey, you do want some coffee?” That’s a normal thing, you’re having a casual conversation, you want to offer somebody something. But certain people will [take that as weakness.]

On how to be a good father from prison

Just develop a very sacred and special place in your mind and your heart for your kids. My daughter was 3 or 4, and I would envision her going to college. And I would envision, what college is she going to? Basically I had this impression in my mind of my daughter as a young professional.

And then, I would work on me. One of my mentors told me, “Man, I used to walk everywhere as if my daughter is right next to me.” … So, I would start acting like my daughter was right next to me. So what that means is, I wouldn’t cuss anymore. I wouldn’t tell crude, perverted jokes or even watch crazy stuff on TV. Because I wanted to start representing myself as the father that my daughter deserves.

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Man Ruptures His Throat By Stifling A Big Sneeze, Prompting Doctors' Warning

A man gets ready to let one loose. Not pictured: all the folks around him diving for cover.

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Now, there is ample reason for you to cover your nose when you sneeze. It’s flu season, after all, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made it quite clear they don’t want you spreading your germs with reckless abandon.

But let’s not go overboard here, people.

In a report Monday in the journal BMJ Case Reports, several ear, nose and throat specialists detail the woes of a man who tried to entirely stifle a strong sneeze. And those woes aren’t exactly pretty.

The unnamed patient in question — a 34-year-old described as “previously fit and well” — attempted to stop a particularly forceful sneeze by “pinching the nose and holding his mouth closed.”

Not long afterward, he noticed something was wrong.

It hurt when he swallowed and he observed a “change of voice.” What’s more, his neck had swollen and, when he tried to move it, produced an unsettling popping and crackling sensation.

As it turns out, his doctors noticed it too, once he had been admitted to the emergency department at Britain’s Leicester Royal Infirmary. X-rays revealed the cause: little “streaks of air” embedded in the soft tissue of his neck, conditions known as subcutaneous emphysema and pneumomediastinum.

A radiograph of the man’s throat shows streaks of air in the back of the throat (black arrow) and extensive surgical emphysema (white arrow).

Courtesy of BMJ Case Reports

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Courtesy of BMJ Case Reports

In other words, by trying to suppress the full force of his sneeze the man literally ruptured his throat. The air that sneeze would have blasted forth instead made its way into his soft tissue as tiny bubbles.

But don’t panic: After at least a week or so of recovery the man was well enough to leave the hospital — with “advice to avoid obstructing both nostrils while sneezing,” Yang adds — and his follow-up two months later revealed a clean bill of health.

It should be noted that this is a unusual case. In fact, Dr. Zi Yang Jiang, a head and neck surgeon who was not involved in the report, tells The Associated Press that such an incident is “exceedingly rare,” and that he sees just one or two such cases a year.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy — or recommended — to stamp a sneeze out.

“It’s powerful,” allergist Eli Meltzer told NPR’s Nancy Shute. “We actually blow out the sneeze at 40 mph. The discharge can go 20 feet. And it’s said that 40,000 droplets can come out when you spritz with the mouth and the nose when you sneeze.”

The moral? As the doctors put it in Monday’s report: “Halting sneeze via blocking nostrils and mouth is a dangerous manoeuvre and should be avoided.”

So, next time you feel that familiar tingle behind the nostrils, just go ahead and let it rip. But for the sake of your coworkers, friends and everyone you hold dear, please: Break out a tissue, too.

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Turning Soybeans Into Diesel Fuel Is Costing Us Billions

An engineer shows a sample of biodiesel at an industrial complex in General Lagos, Santa Fe province, Argentina. The United States recently imposed duties on Argentine biodiesel, blocking it from the U.S. market.

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This year, trucks and other heavy-duty motors in America will burn some 3 billion gallons of diesel fuel that was made from soybean oil. They’re doing it, though, not because it’s cheaper or better, but because they’re required to, by law.

The law is the Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS. For some, especially Midwestern farmers, it’s the key to creating clean energy from American soil and sun. For others — like many economists — it’s a wasteful misuse of resources.

And the most wasteful part of the RFS, according to some, is biodiesel. It’s different from ethanol, a fuel that’s made from corn and mixed into gasoline, also as required by the RFS. In fact, gasoline companies probably would use ethanol even if there were no law requiring it, because ethanol is a useful fuel additive. That’s not true of biodiesel.

“This is an easy one, economically. Biodiesel is very expensive, relative to petroleum diesel,” says Scott Irwin, an economist at the University of Illinois, who follows biofuel markets closely. He calculates that the extra cost for biodiesel comes to about $1.80 per gallon right now, meaning that the biofuel law is costing Americans about $5.4 billion a year.

Irwin explains that use of biodiesel is driven by three different parts of the Renewable Fuel Standard. The law includes a quota for biodiesel use, but in addition to that, biodiesel also is used in order to meet the law’s demand for “advanced biofuels.” Finally, there’s an overall quota for biofuels of all sorts, and companies are using biodiesel to meet that quota as well because they’ve run into limits on their ability to blend ethanol into gasoline.

Defenders of biodiesel insist that it’s a much cleaner fuel than regular diesel, because it doesn’t come from the ground, but from soybean plants that capture carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. In fact, by the EPA’s calculations, replacing petroleum-based fuel with biodiesel will cut greenhouse emissions at least in half.

A growing number of environmentalists, however, say that this calculation is dead wrong. They say that if more soybeans are needed to make fuel in addition to food, it inevitably means that people somewhere on Earth will have to plow up grasslands or cut down forests in order to grow that additional supply — and clearing such land releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Two environmental groups — ActionAid USA and Mighty Earth — just released a report connecting America’s biodiesel demands directly to deforestation in Argentina.

Investigators from the two groups documented widespread clearing of Argentine forests in order to expand cultivation of soybeans. Simultaneously, Argentina expanded its exports of soybean-derived biodiesel to the United States. In 2016, in fact, Argentina shipped more than 400 million gallons of biodiesel to the U.S., equivalent to almost 15 percent of all the biodiesel that Americans consumed.

The story, however, is more complicated than it seems. For one thing, that boom in Argentine biodiesel exports is over, at least for now. Last summer, the the United States accused Argentina of subsidizing its biodiesel producers and “dumping” cheap biodiesel on the world market. In retaliation, the U.S. imposed hefty taxes on on all biodiesel from Argentina. Overnight, those imports ceased. Americans now will have to rely on biodiesel produced here in the U.S. — which also is more expensive. (In a way, Argentina was doing the U.S. a favor, helping it satisfy its biodiesel demands more cheaply.)

In addition, the most powerful factor driving demand for soybeans these days is China’s appetite for soy meal, to feed its pigs and chickens, rather than America’s need for soy oil to make fuel.

“The big story is China’s demand,” says Irwin of the University of Illinois. “If anything is related to tearing up pastures in Argentina to grow soybeans, it’s China and not biodiesel.”

In fact, China wants so much soy meal that it’s boosted global supplies of soy oil, because soybeans, when they’re crushed, yield both meal and oil. By satisfying China’s demand for meal, soy processors inevitably end up with plenty of oil to sell, too. (Interestingly, this is a reversal of the situation a century ago, when soybeans were mainly grown for their oil, and producers struggled to find uses for the meal.)

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Veteran Sues After Scalpel Found Inside His Body 4 Years After Surgery

An X-ray of Glenford Turner’s pelvis shows a surgical instrument.

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Faxon Law Group

A U.S. Army veteran had surgery in 2013 at a Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Connecticut. Four years later, according to a new lawsuit, doctors discovered that a sharp metal surgical instrument had been accidentally left inside Glenford Turner’s body.

“It’s perplexing to me how they could be so incompetent that a scalpel that really should only be on the exterior of your body not only goes into the body but then is sewn into the body,” Turner’s lawyer Joel Faxon tells NPR. “It’s a level of incompetence that’s almost incomprehensible.”

The lawsuit alleges that a trainee surgeon performed the radical prostatectomy at VA Connecticut Healthcare System, West Haven Campus. “Subsequent to the surgery, [Turner] had unidentifiable abdominal pain at the time,” Faxon says. “Nobody could ever really figure out what it was.”

The object was discovered when Turner, now 61, went in for an MRI in 2017 for a separate medical issue. The magnet in the MRI machine “reacts to the scalpel in his abdomen, and you have to stop the procedure because he has all this pain,” says Faxon. “The scalpel’s moving around in there.”

A separate court document describes the object as a “5 inch scalpel handle” – it’s not clear whether the blade is attached to the handle, because Faxon or Turner have not had access to the object. It appears long, thin and pointed on an X-ray.

Turner then went through an additional surgery to remove the instrument.

The VA Connecticut did not provide specific comment on the lawsuit, stating: “VA does not typically comment on pending litigation.”

According to Faxon, the plaintiff filed an administrative claim with the VA last June but has not received a formal response beside stating that they received it. “We’re told by the administrative arm of the VA that they’re so understaffed and incapable of even looking at the claim that they couldn’t do anything,” he said, which prompted the federal lawsuit filed last week.

He expects the case to take some three years to reach a resolution, and is hoping for a payment to Turner of more than a million dollars. “I think something like this is so egregious, and the way the government has handled it is so egregious, that it should be a substantial payment.”

Leaving surgical materials inside patients is surprisingly frequent. “With more than 28 million operations performed nationwide, the number of cases in which foreign bodies are left behind during a procedure in the United States has been estimated at around 1500 cases per year,” scientists recently wrote in the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences, posted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

That may actually be a low estimate. According to the Washington Post, “a 2013 USA Today review of government data, academic studies and legal records found the figure was more likely between 4,500 and 6,000 times per year.”

Sponges are most common, and may cause infections. “I’ve had cases of sponges, needles, … towels, surgical screws, clamps, things like that, left inside people,” says Faxon. This is the first time he’s seen a scalpel.

Turner’s wife is also party to the lawsuit. The complaint states that as a result of the injuries caused by the forgotten medical instrument, his wife “has been caused to lose his company, society, services and affections.”

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DOJ Plans To Ask The Supreme Court To Intervene On DACA

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is appealing a court ruling that reinstated DACA renewals.

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As the prospect of a long-term immigration deal for young people who were brought to the country illegally as children dwindles, the Justice Department is appealing a court ruling that blocked the Trump administration from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The department says later this week it will take “the rare step” of filing a petition asking the Supreme Court to intervene.

A federal judge in California temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA earlier this month. The ruling required the Department of Homeland Security to resume accepting renewal requests from eligible DACA applicants, at least until lawsuits can play out in court.

But in a statement Tuesday Attorney General Jeff Sessions said “it defies both law and common sense” for the DACA program to be mandated nationwide by a single judge in San Francisco.

Sessions added that the decision to wind down the program is clearly within the authority of the executive branch. “It is clear that Acting Secretary Duke acted within her discretion to rescind this policy with an orderly wind down,” he wrote.

“We are now taking the rare step of requesting direct review on the merits of this injunction by the Supreme Court so that this issue may be resolved quickly and fairly for all the parties involved,” said Sessions.

The department has also filed a notice of appeal to the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is suing the administration for putting an end to the program, says the lower court ruling was a step in the right direction. He says thousands of so-called Dreamers need relief.

Trump ordered an end to the Obama-era program in September, calling it an “amnesty-first approach.” Both he and the attorney general have repeatedly called on Congress to come up with a solution to the status of DACA recipients. But any progress made on the issue vanished last week after a White House meeting in which Trump reportedly used vulgar language to describe African countries.

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The Boundary-Breaking Success Of Edwin Hawkin's 'Oh Happy Day'

Gospel singer Edwin Hawkins died on Jan. 15, 2018 at the age of 74.

Joel Clifton/Courtesy of the artist

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Joel Clifton/Courtesy of the artist

Edwin Hawkin‘s “Oh Happy Day” was an accidental hit. The song, a gospel style rework of an 18th century hymn, starts with a jazzy drum beat and a kind of blues pop piano groove. Dorothy Morrison, who sings lead on the recording, remembers at first, the pop feel got a lukewarm reception from the church.

“At first the reaction was, ‘Well, we’re not sure,'” Morrison says.

Hawkins wasn’t sure about it either. It wasn’t even his favorite song on the album. Only 500 copies were made and sold, but one those copies ended up in the hands of a San Francisco DJ who spread it. By 1969, the song reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The following year, “Oh Happy Day” won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance.

Singer Donald Lawrence was just a kid when “Oh Happy Day” was released, but remembers hearing it all the time.

“I enjoyed the way the lead started up, you know, kind of mellow and then it built up and went back down and had dynamics,” Lawrence says.

Edwin Hawkins never had a crossover hit quite like “Oh Happy Day,” but Lawrence, who later became a family friend to the Hawkins, says the song’s popularity broke boundaries.

“It gave people the idea of doing more with gospel music,” Lawrence says. “Meaning that they didn’t limit it to what was considered a gospel music sound at that particular time.”

Listen to the entire story in the player above.

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We Asked, You Answered: What Shaped Trump's View Of Poor Countries?

A boy carries a sack of grain from a dugout canoe to shore in the village of Ambohitsara in eastern Madagascar, characterized as a low-income country by the World Bank.

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Samantha Reinders for NPR

On Friday, we posed this question to our audience: What do you think of the way poor countries are portrayed by aid groups and the media?

The question came in light of President Donald Trump’s reported description of El Salvador, Haiti and nations in Africa as “shithole countries” last week.

“When well-meaning people describe poverty as a hellhole, we shouldn’t be surprised that people end up thinking of poor places as ‘shitholes,’ ” tweetedDina Pomerantz, a prominent development economist at the University of Zurich.

More than 100 readers, from Australia to Sweden, shared their thoughts in our online form and Twitter. One blogger even wrote a reaction blog on the topic, saying it’s unfair to make the connection between Trump’s comments and the way aid groups portray poverty.

Here’s a roundup of responses, which have been edited for length and clarity.

We’re using the same old stereotypes.

“While many NGOs and aid agencies are working to shift the narrative around poverty, many still use the tired old tropes. Images that emphasize poverty and deprivation have a strong effect on the way Westerners view people living in low-income countries. Specifically, these images can cause Americans to perceive Africans broadly as lacking agency and autonomy.”

Michael Artime, professor of politics and government, Pacific Lutheran University

Asking for donations shapes the way we view poverty.

“Since many aid groups and NGOs operate on the basis of voluntary donations or grants awarded on a basis of demonstrated need, I think that some of their media campaigns to solicit this funding have created many negative, helpless stereotypes of poor and developing countries.

Because they appeal to our emotions and guilt, these stereotypes are easily over-circulated and taken to mind and heart as universal. As the president has helped demonstrate [last] week, this pattern can have damaging consequences for everyone.”

-Sophie Williams

Blaming aid groups is unfair.

“As imperfect as the offerings of the aid industry are, blaming them for a changing political climate where ‘holes’ become a topic for discussion seems unfair. Public and political perceptions are often rooted in long-term myths and short-term political discussion around a country or issue like migration.

At the same time the aid industry has become more self-reflective and self-critical. Nuanced campaigns and advocacy by far outnumber alarmist stories or the denigration of people and places as a fundraising strategy.”

-Tobias Denskus, blogger, Aidnography

Trump views are probably not shaped by charity ads.

“Many NGOs strive for positive portrayal in their advertising. In the U.K. and Australia those that are members of Bond and ACFID [international development coalitions] are strongly encouraged to by codes of conduct. Obviously, crises still have to be called crises and need described as need, but my experience has been that professional NGOs being gratuitous in doing this is the exception, not the norm.

I would posit that most people’s views are shaped by their Facebook feeds and TV news. This is where the bulk of the information the average person receives comes from. I rather suspect President Trump’s views are formed by Fox News, not his frequent reading of advertising material from aid NGOs.”

Terence Wood, research fellow, development policy center at Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy

We’re using the wrong adjectives.

The problem isn’t about being positive v negative. It’s simplistic v complex.

— Dave Algoso (@dalgoso) January 12, 2018

There’s a problem with positivity too.

I do think many of the (large? mainstream?) agencies try in particular to show things like *smiling* children. But that raises problems on the other side of same coin; it’s less “this country is a shithole” than “look! cute kids YOU could save”

— Malka Older (@m_older) January 14, 2018

The question is besides the point.

“I think that regardless of how aid groups and the media portray poor countries, it should never be an excuse for politicians to be racist jerks.”

-Jeff Malotte

We try to tell a balanced story.

“As a communications person working for a small global health NGO, this is a balance I’m constantly grappling with. We need to emphasize that it’s the situation we are addressing that is problematic, not the people. We must portray those who receive our services with dignity, as whole people with whole lives, whole families, whole jobs, hobbies, hopes, challenges and joys. We must not reduce them to just a hopeless victim. We strive to weave all of this throughout our messaging.”

-Amy Donahue, communications, Pivot Works

Thank you to everyone who shared their views on the topic. Keep an eye out for another callout on Goats and Soda next month.

Editor’s note: NPR has decided in this case to spell out the vulgar word that the president reportedly used because it meets our standard for use of offensive language:It is “absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.”

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Dinosaur tail to be auctioned for Mexico quake reconstruction

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – A fossilized dinosaur tail discovered in Morocco will be auctioned on Tuesday night in Mexico to raise funds for the reconstruction of thousands of schools damaged by two earthquakes that struck the Latin American nation in September.

The 4-metre-(13-foot)-long, 180-kg (396-pound) tail will be offered at a reserve price of 1.8 million Mexican pesos ($95,805), according to organizer Morton’s Auction House. Anything raised above the reserve price will be donated to the BBVA Bancomer Foundation to help finance the reconstruction of some 5,000 damaged schools.

The extremity belonged to a 17-metre (56-foot), 22-tonne sauropod of the Atlasaurus imelakei species that roamed the Atlas Mountains of Morocco during the Middle Jurassic, some 165 million years ago.

The group of dinosaurs called sauropods were massive four-legged plant-eaters with long necks and long tails, and included the largest land animals ever on Earth.

The two September quakes in Mexico killed an estimated 480 people and caused billions of dollars worth in damage.

A woman takes a picture of the fossilized tail of a sauropod of the Atlasaurus imelakei species, that will be auctioned on Tuesday night in Mexico to raise funds for the reconstruction of thousands of schools damaged by September quakes, at the lobby of the BBVA Bancomer tower in Mexico City, Mexico January 16, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

“Education is an element of enormous importance for the country, an element of social mobility, that is why we support the reconstruction of schools,” Adolfo Albo, from BBVA Bancomer Foundation, told Reuters.

Albo said the foundation hoped the tail would sell for a lot more than the reserve price.

Slideshow (6 Images)

Moroccan paleontologists took 300 hours to clean the gigantic remains of the reptile, before scientists in Utah pieced them back together.

A Mexican businessman, who asked not to be named because he did not want publicity, purchased the fossil for his collection.

($1 = 18.7880 Mexican pesos)

Reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Peter Cooney

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The Fine Line Between A Bad Date And Sexual Assault: Two Views On Aziz Ansari

Babe.net published a woman’s account of a date with comedian Aziz Ansari that she says turned into “the worst night” of her life. In conversation with NPR’s Kelly McEvers, two writers — Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic and Anna North of Vox — discuss whether the story describes a bad date, sexual assault or something in between.

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How The Convenience Economy Has Led To Clutter In Urban China

The advent of shared bikes and food delivery service apps have led to an unprecedented amount of clutter on the sidewalks of China’s largest city. Where pedestrians once walked freely, they now have to compete with speeding electric scooters belonging to armies of food delivery men along limited sidewalk space due to heaps of shared bicycles strewn about.

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