Transcript

113:

Windfall
Transcript

Originally aired 10.16.1998

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Todd Powell

Every morning when I wake up, at some point in time through the morning, those numbers are the first things that pop in my head. And it's been over two and a half years, but I still think of those numbers every day. They're not any significant numbers for the fact of I didn't even pick the numbers. I let the computer pick them. But they're etched in my mind. 3, 8, 9, 37, 38, 48.

Ira Glass

Not that long ago, Todd Powell won $27 million from the Florida State Lottery. Up until that point, he made his living working long hours in the ice and snow on the Alaska pipeline. He sat on the bed the morning he won watching them draw the numbers on television, his bags packed to head north to Alaska.

Todd Powell

I tried to wake my wife up to tell her that I'd hit the lottery. And when I woke her up, she thought I was fibbing to her. She grabbed the comforter and threw it over her head and just didn't want to hear it. And I told her, I said, well, if you will look at my heart, you can tell that I'm not fibbing to you. And you could actually see it in my neck beating. And I felt like it was just fixing to bounce clean out of my chest.

Ira Glass

Money changes things. And a lot of money changes a lot of things. People Todd had known his whole life were nervous talking with him. Strangers wrote asking for money, sometimes for a lot of money. There were family troubles.

Todd Powell

Right after the lottery, the woman that I was married to just-- I started seeing changes, dramatic changes. And the fact that she kind of looked at it a little different than I. We had only been married seven months. And she just looked at it as, well, there was this big pile of money there that I can just do whatever I want to with it.

Ira Glass

He couldn't sleep at night, couldn't eat, lost 26 pounds. He only weighed 154 when he won the lottery. There were fights over money with his wife. They got divorced. He lent friends money who not only never paid it back, they avoided him. They got indignant when he asked for the money, saying he couldn't possibly miss a few thousand bucks. It changes you, all that.

Todd Powell

I may have gotten a little harder. I don't know, because a lot of times now, when people start with the bleeding heart stuff, you know what's fixing to follow. And it kind of just makes you where your brick wall goes up in your own mind, how this brick wall starts to form.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, windfalls and the power of money for good and bad over our own lives. Act One, Reservations. A story of an entire community that is turning its back on a fortune, and why that might not last. Act Two, But Baby It's Cold Outside. Writer Dan Savage, and how a windfall check he got in the mail is hurting his family life. Act Three, Money is Good. How one woman learned to stop worrying and start spending, spending, spending. Act Four, Pot of Gold. Scott Carrier tells the story of someone's life that improved with a huge insurance settlement even though the money never arrived. Stay with us.

Act One. Reservations.

Ira Glass

Act One, Reservations. Nine years ago, a Native American tribe in Minnesota, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, built a casino. The reservation had been poor for a century. Soon they were the second biggest tourist attraction in the state, second only to the Mall of America. Soon they had hundreds of millions of dollars. And it's unclear what to do with all that cash. Alix Spiegel visited.

Alix Spiegel

It's 8 o'clock on a Monday morning, and there are 1,000 people on the floor of the Grand Casino. 1,000 people have showered, brushed their hair and teeth, put on clothing, and traveled-- some of them significant distances-- to the Grand, where they're now pouring money into slot machines with an enthusiasm I don't usually associate with 8:00 AM Monday morning. I've been told a number of times by the people running the Grand that I'm not supposed to interview casino patrons with my tape machine. So I change a five and walk around with a bucket full of nickels, trying to look friendly.

I sit down next to a gray-haired man at a quarter slot and get as far as hello before he tells me to go away, I'm gambling, which I do. I walk a couple aisles over and take a seat next to a woman with two small pictures of her grandchildren propped up on the deck of her slot machine. Her name is Donna. She's 67 and travels every Monday from her home an hour way to gamble at the Grand. She plays from 8:00 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon and then returns home to work at her job as a bartender for the legion club.

A couple times a month, she'll come to the casino with her husband, the farmer. And even though she's 67 and he's 74, they'll stay up all night gambling. On special occasions, like their birthday, they'll rent a room at the hotel next door. She tells me that the casino relaxes her. She says she saw on TV that they pump special oxygen through the air ducts in the ceiling, and she thinks this might have something to do with it.

I'm here to do a story about the Grand Casino, about how the nickels pushed into slot machines by people like Donna have changed life on the Ojibwe reservation. So I try to interest Donna in a conversation about the people she's been feeding her paycheck to for the last two years. Donna isn't interested. She doesn't even remember the name of the tribe which owns the casino. She, like the other thousand people sitting on the casino floor, is just here looking for easy money.

Of course, the odds are stacked in the house's favor. So their pursuit of this windfall simply produces a windfall for someone else, the Ojibwe tribe. I try to talk about this with Donna as she works the buttons of her Wheel of Fortune slot. But she just nods, keeps her eyes glued to the spinning video screen in front of her, and lets me talk.

Kenny

OK, listen. This is brand new again. This road's never been here. So this is brand new here, a two-lane road and tar, nice and tar. These are some of our casino homes, built from casino profits. A lot of duplexes in this neighborhood. This is brand new neighborhood section.

Alix Spiegel

Kenny Weyaus takes me on a tour of the Ojibwe reservation to show me what's new. A lot is new. We drive past new duplex homes on a new road with new curbing and new street lighting. We turn at the new water tower and circle the new spiritual center.

Kenny is a member of the Ojibwe tribe and a tour guide at the Native American museum. Our interview was set up by a PR guy who told me that Kenny knows as much about the Ojibwe as anyone in the tribe. He's 57 and has lived away from the reservation only twice, once after high school, when he moved south to train in the army, and again after his marriage, when the reservation economy was so poor he had to move to Minneapolis to find work.

All of this new dazzles Kenny. It means, among other things, that he won't have to move away from the reservation again. And as we pass each new building, he recites the date of its opening. The new museum, May 18, 1996. The new health clinic, December 12, 1992. We idle in the parking lot of the new lower school and admire the new playground, then drive down the street to yet another new cedar wood building.

Kenny

And right up here to our left is our high school. Yeah, that's a new one too. That came up just the same time as that lower school. And if you go inside, they got a new-- just like your church windows, they got that different colors. And they got those Indian designs up on the roof there, skylight. So it's beautiful inside, when you look up through that dome there.

Alix Spiegel

As we circle to exit the school parking lot, I notice a freestanding, double-wide trailer tucked just behind the school's southern wing. It has colored paper pasted to its windows and some chipper looking signs.

Kenny

That's the old school, yeah. It used to be part of the old school.

Alix Spiegel

It was just those two trailer homes?

Kenny

Trailer homes like that, yeah. That's what they had for school, mobile homes like that connected. Back before '90, everybody lived in Minneapolis, or they were working in Minneapolis. And nobody wanted to come back here. If you brought somebody here, you didn't want to show somebody, oh, this is my home here, kind of run down. So that's kind of degrading, actually. You didn't want to tell anybody where you lived. [INAUDIBLE]. Since the casino came in, now everybody and everything's looking good. And today, even our employees are-- see, our minimum wage is $7 here. Before the Grand Casino came in, I think minimum wage was $3 to $4 an hour.

Alix Spiegel

Then we drive deeper into the reservation. We pass a dilapidated trailer and another, some HUD housing.

Alix Spiegel

What's that?

Kenny

That's a trailer house. A lot of people still got-- you still got so many here, people that live in old beat down trailer house, beat down homes and all of that. Not everybody here's got model homes.

Alix Spiegel

Kenny doesn't say much about the broken-down trailers and public housing. But just across from the comfortable looking, middle-class homes the casino built, there are beat up trailers, trash-strewn yards, little kids walking barefoot around broken glass in a driveway, and the general feeling that things aren't going so well. The Niagara of money pouring into slot machines across the street clearly isn't reaching everyone. And this, in a funny way, is the choice of the tribal government, which takes a moment to explain.

Of the 545 Native American tribes in the US, about 226 have gambling casinos. But most of these operations are too far away from a concentrated population to make any real money. Only a few, around 5%, generate significant profits. The Ojibwe are one of these tribes. So are the Mashantucket Pequot in Connecticut and the Ojibwe's neighbors, the Shakopee tribe, who have a casino just south of Minneapolis at Prior Lake.

But the Pequot and the Shakopee are doing something very different with their windfalls. They're distributing the profits to their members on a per capita basis, which means that each month, every tribal member gets a check in the mail for their fair share of annual casino profits. The tribes don't publicize how large these checks are. Published accounts, which the Shakopee won't confirm, say that each Shakopee member gets $40,000 to $50,000 a month, which is a lot of money. And I should say here, that the Ojibwe tribe could never offer their members a payment of that size. Although it'd still be a lot by anyone's standards, conservative estimates are about $10,000 per year for every man, woman, and child in the tribe.

I ask Kenny if he'd prefer a system of per capita payments instead of a program of investing in buildings and social programs, as the Ojibwe have. And he doesn't pause at all. He doesn't want the money.

Kenny

I don't think it would be good around here. We go like that, we're going back in the old ways, I think, where you didn't even do nothing. That's how come we believe in that. It goes back into infrastructure instead of getting a monthly check every month or something like that.

Alix Spiegel

Over the next couple days, I go out with a number of people from the tribe, nice, newly middle-class people set up for me by the PR man who's acting as my liaison. And whenever I ask them whether they'd want more money, say, in the form of per capita payments, their faces tighten, answers get general, and they all say no. They don't want per capita. They want everything to stay the way it is.

Like Kenny, they allude to the old ways. And I come to understand that the old ways is a euphemism for joblessness, alcoholism, and drug abuse. It's a difficult and embarrassing thing to talk about because it plays into ugly stereotypes about Native Americans and alcoholism. Because they're basically saying they think they could handle the money, but they worry that their family and neighbors can't. When I press one woman to articulate what she thinks will happen if they distribute the money, she tells me to turn off the tape recorder, then leans forward until I can see the pores in her nose. Easy money, she tells me, is dangerous. And this is where our interview ends.

Early in the evening, I go driving on the reservation. In front of a row of HUD homes, I find two teenagers, Marcus and Wesley. As I drive up, they're running circles around an older man who's clearly inebriated. They're laughing, waving their hands in his face, taunting him as he tries to make his way down the street. I roll down my window and ask what they're up to, and the smaller one, Marcus, tells me they're terrorizing drunks.

So I get out of my rental, and we stand together on the street, watching the cars pass, talking about the casino, basically marking time until another victim stumbles by. Marcus and Wesley aren't impressed with what the casino money has accomplished for their community. They hold forth on the thesis that everyone on the reservation is still poor and still tired of not having anything and that everyone except the government wants per capita payments.

As we talk, another old man staggers down the street towards us. He has two young girls with him. The older one holds his upper arm tightly and tries to steer him away from the curb. The younger ones skips behind and in front of him, almost under his feet.

Marcus

For instance, look at him. He needs per capitas.

Wesley

He's homeless. If he got capita payments, he could rent a house.

Marcus

Ask him what he thinks. Humpy, what do you think about the res?

Man 1

Thank you. Thank you.

Wesley

Well done, [? Ardiro. ?]

Girl 1

You leave my uncle alone. Get away from him.

Alix Spiegel

We wait some more. Every time a car goes by, Marcus waves at the person inside. I ask who it is, and he tells me it's his cousin.

Alix Spiegel

Who is that?

Marcus

That is my cousin, Joe.

Alix Spiegel

Two cousins pass. Three cousins pass. Four cousins pass.

Alix Spiegel

Who's that guy?

Marcus

Them are my cousins Ernie and Rodney.

Alix Spiegel

Pretty soon another figure staggers down the road in our direction. It's Wesley's cousin, Billy.

Marcus

You could ask him what he thinks about the casino and stuff.

Alix Spiegel

Will you ask him?

Marcus

Would you like to answer some questions?

Billy

Shoot, about what?

Wesley

The casino and how you think the res should give per caps.

Billy

They know they owe us. Bottom line is [BLEEP].

Alix Spiegel

What do you mean?

Billy

What I mean by that is they should be giving us something back.

Alix Spiegel

You don't think you're getting anything?

Billy

No, we're not. Well, check us out man. There's like three families living in one house.

Alix Spiegel

Where?

Billy

All over the place.

Marcus

Like that house, they got, like, 11 kids and [BLEEP].

Alix Spiegel

Billy used to work at the casino but got laid off. Now he lives with a family he says can't support him and gets by on welfare checks. Everyone agrees that about half the tribe wants per capitas. And it's people like Billy, the people who are worst off, who tend to want them the most.

Billy

People think we got it made down here. We do not got it made. It's hard to live here. Ever since that casino got here, it's harder for us to live, because we're expecting to live but we're not. After a while, we have to start thinking about, where's all this money going that we got. That's what I want to know.

Marge Anderson

You know, this is a thankless job. It's--

Alix Spiegel

Marge Anderson is the chief of the Ojibwe tribe. She's a small woman who sits in a large office with all the props of the executive around her, a small golf green, a big mahogany desk, a mug with the appropriate observation about where the buck stops, and pictures. Marge with Bill Clinton, Marge with Bruce Springsteen, Marge smiling with Johnny Cash.

Marge has been tribal chief since '91, when the casino opened. She's the person who has presided over the tribe's economic boom. The person who built the roads and built the schools, and through sheer force of will, made the reservation a much better place than it was 10 years ago. She's also the main opponent of distributing profits through per capita payments, though it's such a sensitive issue right now that when I ask her about it, she tells me to turn off my tape recorder.

Finally, I get her to say this on tape--

Marge Anderson

You know. I see what's happening in these other communities, where you have alcohol problems, you have drug problems, you have just dependency problems where I think it's self-defeating.

Alix Spiegel

Marge knows that many people in the tribe want per caps. She even knows this may cost her her job. In the last election, the tribe voted in a new secretary treasurer who ran on a per capita platform, promising to give more casino money directly to tribal members. And Marge is worried that he might disrupt the work she's accomplished. And she's getting tired. She sighs and tells me that her job takes too much time. She's frequently away on weekends. She says she's afraid that her grandchildren won't know her.

In addition to the problem of trying to convince a group of people who are poor that they should not vote themselves more money, she's now fending off her white neighbors who are threatening to take away the casino and the casino profits entirely.

Marge Anderson

If history repeats itself, then one of these days, the casino's going to be gone. Some way, somehow, somebody's going to find a way to take it away from us again.

Alix Spiegel

You think that?

Marge Anderson

I really believe that, because of the way things are going right now. Now we have a compact with the State of Minnesota that allows us to do this. And the compact is perpetual. There's no ending date on it. And now you have those that want to renegotiate. Let's open up that compact. And you know what? What they want to open up the contract so they can break it again.

And one of the things that these negotiators said was, had we known these tribes were going to be that successful, we would never have signed a compact with them. So what does that say? They wanted us to fail again? I know, it is frustrating. And it just-- I sit here and sometimes I just say, what the heck is the use?

Alix Spiegel

In part, it's this possibility, that the casino will be taken away, that gives such urgency to Marge's opposition to per capita payments. She feels the tribe must use every scrap of money that they have to diversify their economy, create an economy that is not dependent on the casino. So she's buying pizza franchises and investing in bottled water, and generally pouring the tribe's money into industries which aren't subject to the whims of state legislators. She feels there is a window here, just a brief sliver of time, before the jealousy of their white neighbors or the innate attraction of easy money overwhelms them.

Mishkoob

This is what the petition says. It says, we, the band membership, call for a referendum vote for 80-20 or more per capita payment for adult band members in fiscal 1999 and beyond.

Alix Spiegel

When I met Mishkoob, he had just come back from collecting signatures. He had a clipboard with Mille Lacans for Progress written on top and five new names penciled on the petition. The PR man at the casino warned me that Mishkoob was a zealot and a radical. And when I sit down at his kitchen table, there are charts and graphs everywhere, heaped in piles on the floors, scattered over the desk by the window. And then, suspended from a hook on the wall by the desk, an unsteady looking bar chart which tracks the growth of the Ojibwe government's budget. Mishkoob pounds the kitchen table and makes his argument.

Mishkoob

Everybody else is getting the money but the average band member who owns all this. See, that's the thing that band members need to get through their thick skulls, is that this is all theirs. It's their casino. It's their hotel. For every poor Mille Lac person on the reservation now, there's probably no less than three non-Indians working, telling us what to do, where to go, how we're going to do it, what's the future, what's our plan, what store to buy, what bank to buy, what gas station to buy, how much dirt is needed. Everybody else is out there getting paid big bucks of our money because we're the poor clients.

Alix Spiegel

Mishkoob's heard the arguments against per capita. He's heard the rumors that other tribes who have tried the per capita system have had problems with boozing or lack of motivation, but dismisses the possibility that these problems will afflict the Ojibwe.

Mishkoob

I'd like to believe that Mille Lacs is going to be the exception to the rule. Now, like I keep saying, there's only 1,500 adults. Now, they're all not going to start taking drugs and start drinking. Most of them are responsible people. And given the opportunity, they will make the right choices.

Alix Spiegel

That night, I run into Marcus, Wesley, and their friend Courtney at the casino, and we all pile into the rental and go cruising. It was supposed to be the first day of school for Marcus and Courtney, but Marcus hasn't enrolled yet, and Courtney got suspended for setting fires in the time out room. So no one in the car had anything to do in the morning but me.

We visit a friend of theirs, Rae Ann, but the boys are restless. They want to go riding. They want to turn donuts in the dirt road behind the casino. They want to go tail whipping down at Moon Lake. They want to do these things in the rental. Mostly though, they want me to buy them alcohol.

Marcus

Let's go to the liquor store.

Alix Spiegel

And who is going to buy? I can't buy you liquor.

Rae Ann

Why not? Everybody else does.

Alix Spiegel

I offer McDonald's instead, my treat. There's general approval and we leave Rae Ann and drive north for cheeseburgers.

In the car, we talk mostly girls, automobiles, and the supernatural. Wesley tells me that ghosts walk the shoulders of the roads at night. He says they're all around the woods. In the western part of the reservation, an area called The Point is filled with them at night. Finally, we finish our McDonald's run and drive down to a park by the lake to eat. The park is empty, just a picnic table, some scattered trash, and us.

We sit together in the car, eating sweet and salty food. And when we finish, I tell them about my conversation with Marge, about how she wants to save the casino money. So that if the white people take the casino away, there will still be industry on the res. Her fear that people will take the money and blow it on drink and drugs. Marcus and Wesley are quiet, but Courtney pipes up.

Courtney

I know I'd be spending all my money on liquor.

Alix Spiegel

Do you think so?

Courtney

Yeah.

Alix Spiegel

So do you think that they're doing the right thing?

Courtney

Probably, yeah.

Alix Spiegel

Who would you vote for, somebody who said that they would give you per capita or somebody who said that they wouldn't?

Courtney

Someone who said they would, I'd vote for them.

Alix Spiegel

Even though you think that if you did get the money, you probably wouldn't get a job?

Courtney

Yep.

Alix Spiegel

And even though you said that you also think that they're doing the right thing?

Courtney

Yeah.

Alix Spiegel

That's kind of--

Courtney

Confusing.

Alix Spiegel

--that is kind of confusing.

Courtney

Yeah.

Alix Spiegel

There's a wall of winners at the Grand Casino. It's covered ceiling to ground with framed photographs of jackpot winners. Most of them look frenzied with happiness. They hold fans of money over open mouths, balance oversized checks on their hips. And in the middle of the wall of photos, there's a picture frame, the same size and shape as the others, with a mirrored surface, where the winner's picture would be, and the words, this could be you, written in block lettering. It's a hard message to resist.

[MUSIC - "AMERICA" BY LITTLE JACK MELODY AND HIS YOUNG TURKS]

Act Two. But Baby It's Cold Outside.

Ira Glass

Act Two, But Baby It's Cold Outside. Now this story of how a sudden influx of money affected one otherwise happy home, that of writer Dan Savage in Seattle. A warning to some listeners, Dan mentions the fact that he's a homosexual in the upcoming story.

Dan Savage

The check came in the mail. I didn't even get to see it, never got to hold it in my hand and marvel at the string of zeroes that came before the decimal point. My boyfriend Terry deposited the check as if it were any old check that came in the mail to our house. Our money goes straight into our joint checking account, so I never got to see our check. But this wasn't like any of our other checks. This was the single largest check ever made out in my name that didn't arrive in a yellow envelope with Ed McMahon's picture on it.

I write a sex advice column. And a book publisher got this crazy idea that they might make money for themselves by publishing a collection of my old columns. On the expectation that they would make money, the publisher gave me some money. I rewrote my old columns, and shortly before the book came out, they sent me a check.

I don't have it in me to tell you how much this check was for. I couldn't stand to hear from people that I got paid too much or too little. And it's hard for me to talk about money anyway. Money was scarce when I was a kid. My parents had four kids in Catholic schools and braces, and paying for it all on a Chicago cop's salary was not easy. Conversations about money were unpleasant. My family avoided talking about money just like we avoided talking about how drunk Grandma always seemed to be.

So I can't bring myself to tell you how much this windfall came to. But I will say this, it was in the low to high-mid five figures, OK? It was 10 times as much money as I made the year I turned 30. Enough money to make me feel so monumentally guilty, that after Terry told me the check came, I had to lie down in a dark room for the rest of the afternoon.

Before the money had a chance to settle into our checking account and get acquainted with what little bit of money was already there, my boyfriend Terry was making plans to spend it and spend all of it. Terry likes spending money, especially our money, which I like to think of as my money, since I earn it. But I have to push these thoughts out of my head and let Terry regard my money as his. That's the deal we made when we decided to adopt.

Terry quit working to stay at home with the baby for a couple of years. We're having a family the old-fashioned way. Our relationship, with the exception of the two penises thing, is very traditional. Terry stays at home and takes care of the baby. I go out in the world and make the money. In other words, a stay-at-home fag, a go-to-work fag, and one little baby's sexual orientation to be determined at a later date. As Terry sees it, it's my job to make money, and his job to spend it.

I, however, cannot spend money. When I was growing up, spending money was just as painful as talking about money. More. My mom would drive all four of us out to the Sears at Irving and Western in Chicago at the beginning of the school year. While my brothers and sister ran around oblivious to what was actually going on, sensitive little faggy me would see the tortured look on my mother's face as she realized she couldn't afford back-to-school clothes for all of us. Then I'd watch her pull out her Sears credit card, pray it wasn't maxed out, and hand it to the sales clerk.

On two occasions when it was just mom and me, her Sears card was maxed out. Seeing my mom turn red and say no when the clerk asked if she could pay cash was heartbreaking. To this day, I hate to shop. I don't do malls or department stores or boutiques or even catalogs. High-tech options are no better. I get the same sick feeling surfing into the virtual Gap that I get walking into an actual Gap.

But Terry loves to shop. Traditional enough to begin with, our relationship is never quite so comically traditional as it is when we fight about money. Or I should say, when we fight about how Terry spends money, my money. After the baby came and Terry stopped working, I thought I'd managed to pound some sense into his head. We couldn't live paycheck to paycheck now that we had a baby. We needed money in the bank in case the baby got leukemia or something, or if I did. Terry saw the logic, and we agreed we would both buy less and save more.

That's not how it worked out. Buying less was easy enough for me, as I never bought much to begin with. But spending money, including money he did not have, was always Terry's hobby. And pretty soon Terry was taking the baby for walks through Old Navy and Nordstrom's and Barnes and Noble. When the baby was asleep at home, Terry was getting online and buying CDs.

Now, this is where it gets comic, sitcom-ic. Think Lucy and Ricky. Since he knows it makes me angry when he spends money on stuff we really don't need, clothes, shoes, music, money we might need if the baby or I get leukemia or something, my boyfriend always hides the things he buys. But since we live in a very small house, there aren't many places to hide things. So I go into a closet looking for my shoes or a coat, and I find a shopping bag hidden behind our old clothes full of brand new clothes, or a box of new CDs.

A la Ricky Ricardo, I storm into the living room and ask-- and I apologize in advance for my lousy, mock Cuban accent-- honey, what is this, holding up the bag. A la Lucy Ricardo, Terry denies ever having seen the bag before. Well, how did this get into our closet, then, I ask. I don't know, pouts Terry. Oh, Lucy, I exclaim. Whaa, cries Terry.

These were the dynamics at play when the big check arrived, the one with all those zeroes. Our windfall took a bad situation and made it much, much worse. In my mind, what had been a little gun in Terry's hand, our checking account, became a nuclear weapon. If it had been up to me, we wouldn't have deposited that check. After all, if we didn't cash it, it couldn't hurt us or change anything.

So a few days after Terry deposited our check, I did something patriarchal, very Father Knows Best. Something unlike anything I'd ever done before. Out of our joint checking account, I wrote myself a check for the full amount of my advance and deposited that check in an account only I have access to, my old savings account. I was afraid that if I left our money in our joint checking account, our windfall would disappear one afternoon while I was at work. Oh yeah, I knew Terry could spend the entire amount, the whole low to high-mid five figures, at one go.

I moved the money out of our checking account after Terry made the mistake of telling me what he wanted to buy with it, a new car. I think that's a bad idea for several reasons. First, it appears the planet is about to fall into a worldwide economic recession-cum-depression. And people tend to need less sex advice in a recession. And I'm concerned that the sex advice business, like liposuction and website design, might dry up if everyone is standing in bread lines or jumping out windows. I'd rather have the money in the bank.

Secondly, I don't want a car. I'm 34. I've never owned a car. I don't know how to drive. I suggested to Terry that we buy a beat-up old car, something priced in the low four figures or high three. But he insisted we needed a new car, not for us, but for the baby. We need a safe car, a Volvo or something. He promises no more shopping once we've got it. And if me or the baby does come down with leukemia, Terry pointed out, he'll need a new car to get us back and forth to our chemotherapy appointments. And he swears that if we buy a car, we'll eat nothing but macaroni and cheese and wear only rags for the rest of our lives. At war with my inner voices, I agree to spend our money to buy us a car that I can't drive.

Terry has started shopping with a vengeance. He's reading books on smart car buying, visiting all the internet sites, getting advice from people with experience buying cars. While Terry shops, I worry. Early in our relationship, when we first moved in with each other, one of my first official acts as Terry's boyfriend was to pay off his low to mid-low four figure credit card debt. He was supposed to pay me back a certain amount every month, but after three months, I told him to stop. We'd already merged our checking accounts, so the check he was writing me every month came out of our checking account. And I would put the money back into our checking account, and Terry would spend it. It was all a little silly, so I told him to stop, and I joked about having bought myself a boyfriend.

As time went on and I started making enough money that we could contemplate Terry not working, I stopped joking about buying a boyfriend, because sometimes I worry that's exactly what I've done. Is Terry just another windfall? I love Terry, but does Terry love me? Or does he love not having to worry, for the time being at least, about supporting himself? Or if that's why he loves me, is that OK? There are lots of reasons people love their partners. And the notion that the only valid one is sexual passion is pretty limiting. Maybe part of the reason Terry loves me is because checks come in the mail. And maybe that is OK.

More than any other force in a relationship, more even than sex-- and I say this to you as a sex columnist-- money always seems to push people to the extremes of their characters. Money turns ordinary people into caricatures of themselves. Money was a large part of what destroyed my parent's marriage. And now I find myself worrying that money concerns, who makes it, how it's spent, the pressure I'm under to make more, the pressure Terry's under to spend less, will do long-term harm to my relationship with Terry. Because the problem with money is that money problems are never just about money. They're about who you are. And right now in our house, there are only two options. You're either Lucy or you're Ricky.

Ira Glass

If Dan Savage has offended you in some way over the years, if you hate his sex advice column, if you want for some reason to destroy his personal life, you can do it by buying his new book, Savage Love: Straight Answers from America's Most Popular Sex Columnist. Coming up, money is good not bad, even money you don't have. Two case studies. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Windfall. What happens to you when you make the big score, for better and for worse. And up until the point in this program, I'd have the moral of every story has been very-- how to say this-- it's been very public radio. That is, the lesson of every story has been money is scary. Money is bad. Money can lead to dangerous feelings and things and make people unhappy. And so as an antidote to that, in this half of our program, we bring you stories of money actually doing people some good.

Act Three. Money Is Good.

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Money is Good. Picture, please, this couple. When Elizabeth was seven, her father sat her and her 10-year-old sister down at the kitchen table with a bunch of charts, a bar graph, showing what college tuition would cost by the time each of them hit 18, and how much of that Elizabeth and her sister would be expected to pay themselves, and how they should start earning and saving right away.

Elizabeth Gilbert

And we took this in very, very seriously. And then it just sort of started this-- I just remember going to school the next day and sitting next to my friend Sandy Thornberg and telling him about it. And saying to him-- I was seven years old-- and I said to him, man, how am I ever going to raise that kind of cash? I'm only seven. What can I possibly do?

Ira Glass

Meanwhile, four states away, same year, 1978, when Mike was 11, his mom woke up him, his brothers, and his sister in the middle of the night, dragged them down to their dining table where their dad was sitting with some paper lunch bags.

Michael Cooper

He kind of drew in a big breath and looked into each of our faces, and reached over and grabbed these paper bags, and dumped about $20,000 in $20 bills out onto the table.

Ira Glass

His dad had been to the races, won the trifecta. But he did not put it away for the kid's college or invest it or pay off the mortgage or save anything.

Michael Cooper

We re-carpeted the house. We bought VCRs. We bought waterbeds for everybody.

Ira Glass

Waterbeds for everybody is a phrase you almost never hear. Waterbeds for everybody.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Not enough. Waterbeds for all my friends.

Ira Glass

Two decades later, this man meets this woman. Situation, he'd just lost his job. It was rough. Needed to drink. Her situation, she had a job tending bar. And the money thing came up pretty fast.

Michael Cooper

Our very first conversation about money, in fact, was the first night I met Liz in the bar. And my friends and I had gone in to drink. And we drank all night. We drank until 5:00 or 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. And when we were out of money, there was nothing left but lint in our pockets. Liz said, well, listen, why don't I close down the bar and I'll take you all out to breakfast. And she did.

Elizabeth Gilbert

With all the money they'd been giving me.

Michael Cooper

Yeah. And so I remember, at the end of the night, I insulted my best friend Reggie. And I won't go into detail there. But I insulted him, and he got up and he left. And so I was left there in the middle of the Village without a way to get home. And I remember asking Liz if I could borrow $10 to get home. And she obliged. And I thought, now that's my kind of girl.

Elizabeth Gilbert

It was actually, I gave it to him, because I was sure that I would be able to see him again if he owed me money. And he did come back two days later and gave me the $10 back.

Ira Glass

Now, is there anything in that first interaction which indicates the overall direction and theme of the way the two of you handle money?

Elizabeth Gilbert

Just everything. I had never really met somebody before Michael who spent money quite the way that he did. Because I was raised with this incredibly frugal family who always had these amazing anxieties about money. And I was always so amazed when I was hanging out with him. Really, you go to restaurants every day? Or you send your laundry out? And you take taxis everywhere? There's just sort of no-- there didn't seem to be any plan.

I've had anxiety about money my whole life. It was something that was sort of given to me at a very young age and hasn't ever really been taken away. And so I'm never quite sure that you're not going to starve, or that you're not going to be thrown out on the street.

Michael Cooper

And I've always sort of-- I guess my credo has been that someone will always give you money. Money can come into your life in unexpected ways and in some ways is unpredictable.

Ira Glass

Would you have conflicts about money, the two of you, earlier on in your relationship?

Elizabeth Gilbert

Well, I can give you an example. I think probably the biggest money decision and discussion we ever had to have was when we got married. And there was some money that had been put aside for me. My dad had been saving money my whole life for a college education. And for whatever reason, some scholarships, some other stuff, there was a small amount of money left over from that, which he told me I could have when I got married or turned, whatever, 30 or something. I don't remember.

And I just knew. I just knew in my heart that my parents' values-- they had gotten married by a Justice of the Peace because it was the frugal thing to do-- because they both have those values, that it's a waste of money to spend money on a wedding.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Elizabeth Gilbert

And I knew. I knew, knew, knew, knew, knew so deeply in my heart that they didn't want me to spend that money on a wedding. And it was kind of the only money that we had at the time. We weren't in debt, but we didn't have any savings. And it was a nice little nest. It would have started off a nice-- you know I mean? For a married couple to have started with this small parcel of money, it would have been good. It also was just enough to have a nice, little wedding, which I wanted but couldn't get over this idea that this money was not to be spent.

And Michael was fine, had no qualms at all about spending every last cent of it on the wedding. Because he felt like it was an important thing to, to have everybody that you want with you on this day. And I just couldn't get over it. And it was causing me so much trouble. And we fought about it, I cried about it, we suffered over it. And at one point, I had decided, forget it. We're not spending this money on a big wedding. We'll get married in my parents' backyard. We'll have pulled pork sandwiches and play music on a record player.

And then I had this big revelation where I said to Michael, but that means we won't have a band, and that means we won't dance. And what if, for the rest of our lives, whenever we go to a wedding, we see other couples dancing on their wedding day, and every time I see it, it kills me that we didn't get to dance at our wedding?

And he got down on his knees, and he took my hands, and he said, I won't tolerate it. I won't tolerate it. We have to spend the money. And we did. And I think that, in many ways, Michael is always just what I needed, as far as showing you what's more important than having $10,000 in the bank.

Ira Glass

Now, if your parents were to tell this story today, would the theme of this story be, and that's when she fell into the hands of the force of evil?

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

That was the turning point?

Elizabeth Gilbert

No, because everything-- the thing that Michael said at the time was, you don't know what's going to happen. Maybe that will be the last $10,000 we'll ever, ever, ever have. Or maybe, six months from now, you'll sell a book, or I'll get a great job, and we'll have tons of money. And we'll look back and we'll say, we could have had the wedding. You should just do what you want to do, because you don't know.

Ira Glass

So your parents were fine with the way you spent the money?

Elizabeth Gilbert

Possibly because of the fact that my parents had never had a wedding, it was such an incredibly emotional event for them as well. And of course I would do it all over again. I would do it for $100,000. It was the most beautiful and important day. And the money has never been-- we've never felt its loss for a minute after that. But I really needed to fight to get that feeling, to be able to feel like I deserved to spend $10,000 on one day.

Ira Glass

Liz Gilbert is a writer at large for GQ Magazine. Michael Cooper is the director of a human rights foundation.

[MUSIC - "DIAMONDS AND PEARLS" BY PRINCE]

Act Four. Pot Of Gold.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Pot of Gold. If a windfall can change your life, can your life also be changed by a windfall that you simply believe will occur? We have this story from Scott Carrier in Salt Lake City.

Scott Carrier

When I was 19, my mother bought an old house for $10,000 and said I could live in it if I cleaned it up and took care of it. It sat in the weeds on a narrow, dead-end alley, two blocks from the University of Utah. I said sure and moved in. Or rather, I opened the door and set my backpack down on the floor.

The first night I was there, my neighbor from across the alley came over for a visit. He was about 45 years old, six foot two, greasy, shoulder-length hair combed straight back, glasses with thick lenses that made his eyes look huge, six-day stubble, black silk shirt, 16-ounce Budweisers in each hand. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Down on the corner, he said, you got the two old lesbians. Nosy as hell. A pure nuisance. They just put up two security lights that shine straight in my bedroom. Then next door, there's the crazy hag from Tennessee, drinks Thunderbird all day and screams at her speed freak son to go out and get a job. I've been here longer than anybody. It's my mom's house, but she lives in San Francisco now managing a hotel. The one in that film, The Conversation. You seen it?

Yeah, I said. It's one of my favorites. Harry Caul sleeps in his raincoat. That was an awesome movie, he said. Flushed the bitch down the toilet. No, I said. It turned out that it was all a set-up. And actually the two lovers killed the rich husband. Whatever, he said. The ending was awesome though. The guy playing his saxophone in his apartment.

Bob was the type of guy who wanted me to know, first thing, that I could count on him no matter what. Listen, he said, I can tell just by looking at you that you're a smart son of a bitch who doesn't know his ass from his elbow. Probably can't fight worth a damn either. You need anything, you got somebody you want fixed, beat up, or disappeared, whatever, you tell me and it's as good as done. You just ask Bob. Yeah, I said, OK. But things are going pretty good right now. Thanks anyway.

I gutted the house, tore out any walls that weren't holding up the roof, stripped 12 layers of paper off the others, ripped up the carpet, broke the windows free of paint and opened them for the first time in decades. I kept only the refrigerator and stove and slept on a pad on the floor with a stray kitten on my neck, or on my face, if I'd let it.

Bob would come over every day and drink beer and smoke Pall Malls and watch me work, offering advice. In the beginning, he had a friend staying with him, Clarence, about 60 years old with white hair, who was just holding up until he went to prison for killing his wife with a broomstick, because she was a witch.

They'd come over with folding lawn chairs, sit and drink beer and listen to jazz on my tape player. They were Bob's tapes. He had John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and older guys like Fats Waller. They'd drink two or three beers. And Bob would get up and move around, not dancing but moving to the music, saying you hear that. You hear that, man? Awesome.

And it'd go on like this through three beers, four beers. Somewhere around two six-packs they'd be yelling at each other, making no sense whatsoever, while I carried out lath and plaster and threw it in a pile in the front yard.

Clarence did shortly go to prison, the state penitentiary, and even wrote me a letter saying I was a good man and that I should try not to make the same mistakes he had, you know, killing my wife a broomstick. But that all in all, prison wasn't so bad. And that he thanked God every day he wasn't in for lying or cheating or stealing, because these men had nothing to look forward to but getting beat up and being some man's girlfriend.

So Clarence was gone. And the old woman from Tennessee just was no longer around one day. And that just left Bob and me and the two women down on the corner who would sometimes stop by the afternoon, when Bob was sleeping, and ask me all kinds of prying questions. Like, who was my mom anyway to buy this house for me? And why didn't I have a job? And why did I let that Bob come over and bother me?

I said, it's true, I don't like his cologne too much. But it gets covered up pretty quick by the cigarettes and beer burps. And then I do actually like his music. Besides, he's lonely. What's wrong with that? He's worthless, they said, absolute garbage.

Bob had had jobs, lots of jobs, concrete construction. His last being installing fiberglass insulation. But he'd hurt his back falling off a ladder, and this kept him idled now on disability. The only way he got by at all, he said, was by doing jobs for the man. He wanted me to think that he was a hitman, but I found it hard to believe that Bob could actually kill somebody. He did have a sawed-off shotgun that he kept standing next to his front door. And I used to stare at it and want to pick it up. But I thought it was prop or like a trophy, a way of redeeming himself in the eyes of others.

But then, he did come over one night at 11 o'clock, not even drunk and heavily oiled, looking slick in a black shirt and white tie, clean-shaven. He was shaken. He said he just wanted to say goodbye, as he might not be around for a while. His hand was cold and wet when I shook it.

That time, he came back. He was there the next day, sitting in my living room while I was painting. And he never said a thing about what had happened. But a few months later, he was gone for 10 days. And I thought maybe he was on the run. Turned out he'd been in the hospital with a broken leg. He'd gone over to the Top Stop at midnight for a quart of beer and was hit by a drunk driver coming back across 5th East. He had a cast from his crotch to his ankle.

I said, I'm sorry man. And he said, no way. It's the best thing that could have happened. Sure, it hurt like a bastard to begin with, but then they shot me up and I was flying. Now I'm going to sue this son of a bitch for everything he has. My lawyer says it'll be in the hundreds of thousands. Maybe a million. I'm rich.

The accident changed Bob's life for the better and for the worse. He decided to go to Trade Tech and study drafting, technical drawing. He had to take some math and do some writing. And he'd come over with his homework and tests to show me how well he was doing. He was proud of himself. He even had a girlfriend for a while, a women his age he'd met at school who was studying to be an accountant. But she turned out to be trouble. But this wasn't the bad part. It wasn't the worst part of hearing he was going to be rich.

As soon as Bob's lawyer told him he was going to be rich, he started to think about what he was going to do with all the money, how he was going to spend it. He had a list on paper. Two Harley Davidsons, an Electra Glide and a Sportster, and a pick-up truck to haul them around in, a new four-way stereo system with a 500-watt Kenwood amplifier and six-foot high JBL loudspeakers, an elaborate hand-carved bar for drinking and entertaining his friends, and a new home.

Or rather, he'd rebuild his present home, a small brick box, by first raising it 15 feet off the ground on steel I-beams and installing an electronic trap door for an entrance. Then he was going to take off his roof and add another three floors on top, pagoda style. He had it drawn out in all dimensions and angles. A 60-foot tall pagoda with dragons and flames that would flare out from sloping gables, everything in detail, down to the framing and nailing schedules.

He had these drawings laid out on his kitchen table. And he carried the list of things to buy in his shirt pocket, so he could add and subtract continually, day by day, month by month, on and on. It became a notebook, then several notebooks. And to me, it was like he had a disease, a mental illness, where these things, all these things had gone, in his mind, from being objects of desire to actual, material things already in his possession. He kept his hair cut. He changed his clothes. He stopped with the cologne. He stopped coming over and spending the day. He was a new man, because he had all this stuff. But then he didn't actually have any of it.

The lawsuit dragged on and on, one year, two years. And in the end, he got very little, maybe a few thousand dollars, as the lawyer's bill came to quite a lot, I guess. And then the judge decided that Bob's life hadn't really been damaged so much after all. He'd been a bum, essentially, before the accident. And after the accident, he'd earned a degree in technical drawing, and was actually something better than a bum. So I think it was difficult to justify a large compensation.

But then I don't really know what happened, as Bob was too sad and depressed to talk about it. Then one day he was gone. He left me a note saying he went to San Francisco to live with his mother and didn't know when he'd be back. I moved on as well not long after that to go to school out of state. And I've never seen or heard from him since. I hope he's still not carrying that list. I picture him sitting in the basement of the Jack Tar Hotel, the one in the movie, with a lousy mattress and a sawed-off shotgun, listening to Miles and waiting to be called upstairs by the man for a job, disposing of the evidence by flushing it down the toilet.

Ira Glass

Scott Carrier in Salt Lake City.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself, with Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Alex Blumberg did our interview today with the lottery winner, Todd Powell, at the top of the show. If you'd like to buy a cassette of our program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@well.com. Or you know you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website, www.thislife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who said this, when he discovered that i'd bought all that new equipment for the studio without telling him--

Dan Savage

Honey, what is this?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass.

Dan Savage

Well, how did this get in your closet, then?

Ira Glass

Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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