Transcript

138:

The Real Thing
Transcript

Originally aired 08.27.1999

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/138

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Jug Burkett is a businessman in Dallas, a Vietnam vet. And about 10 years ago, he was in charge of a campaign that was trying to build a memorial to honor Vietnam vets from Texas. It wasn't easy.

Jug Burkett

The immediate public reaction was, why should we give money for those bums?

Ira Glass

So Mr. Burkett started doing research so he could prove to people that most Vietnam vets are not bums. They have jobs. They didn't go crazy in the war. They're leading utterly normal lives.

Jug Burkett

Then, right in the middle of doing that, there was a murder here in Dallas. A vagrant killed a policeman at a traffic stop. And the headlines basically said, Vietnam veteran goes berserk. And for a week, there were follow-up stories about how Vietnam made him do it.

Ira Glass

You were in the situation where this was going to hurt your fundraising efforts.

Jug Burkett

Well, it was hurting my fundraising. Every time a bad story like that appeared, I would get heckled by the people that I was trying to get money out of. Hey Burkett, I saw another one of your boys went crazy last night, kind of thing.

Ira Glass

Mr. Burkett is not the kind of man who sits by and idly watches things go to hell. He took action.

Jug Burkett

Anyway, I checked this particular fellow's individual military record, and it turned out he never served in Vietnam. He'd only been in the Navy three months and he got kicked out on a psychological charge.

Ira Glass

We live in a world full of people faking this thing and that. And it turns out that spotting a fake Vietnam vet is one of the easier lies to get to the bottom of. Mr. Burkett started routinely checking the bona fides of anybody in the news who claimed to have served in the war. He claims that he's found hundreds of fakers. He discovered some famous people fibbing about their service records to buff up their public images, like actor Brian Dennehy. He found defendants in murder cases claiming to be war heroes hoping to beat the rap, or alternately, claiming that war made them crazy and they can't be held responsible. He found big public events misreported.

Jug Burkett

Do you remember the killing up in Edmond, Oklahoma? It was one of the first mass killings in the post office. 14 postal workers killed. Well again, Vietnam veteran goes berserk story. I checked the man's military record. He never served in Vietnam.

Ira Glass

And often, what's amazing about these cases is the outrageousness of the lies. VA officials and career officers who fabricated and exaggerated among people who could easily catch them out. A soldier who is quoted extensively in the book, We Were Soldiers Once... and Young, a history of the battle of Vietnam's Ia Drang Valley.

Jug Burkett

There's a man in there named Kreischer who is right in the middle of the battle. And of course, that thing is an oral history type thing. It skips around. And they're talking about being on the tree line and all this thing. And Kreischer after the war actually founded their alumni group, started that. He then became a big fixture in the 1st Cav Division organization, ultimately became its president.

And somebody gave me a tip that this may not all quite be on the up and up. And I got his military record. The guy had been discharged four months before that battle. He wasn't in the battle and yet had convinced everybody who was in the battle that he was with them shoulder to shoulder. He convinced the people in the same squad, the same platoon. He convinced the company commanders. And not only did he convince them, they all elected him their president.

Ira Glass

That's because the person who has to convince people that he is the real thing is going to do a much more aggressive job of being the real thing than the person who actually is the real thing.

Jug Burkett

You are going to know more about that battle than the people that were there. You're going to consume everything written about it. You're going to send off for things. You're going to watch the documentaries. The guy who was there-- this was an episode that flashed by, and he went on to the next thing.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, The Real Thing, stories of people drawn to some idea, some picture, some thing that they just want to be. Some people doing it innocently, some less innocently, and how easy it is to slip from one to the other. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One of our program today, My Life With the Thrill Kill Cult, in which a woman, as part of her job, starts hanging around with some gang members and slowly finds herself changing the way she dresses, changing the way she talks, changing her cigarette brand to theirs. Act Two, Black Like Me, a story of hockey and basketball and what it means to be really black. Act Three, Drawl, what's it mean to talk like a real southerner, and why one multimillion dollar industry can't seem to figure it out. Act Four, Real Love, an illustration from Sandra Loh of the rule that if it seems too good to be true, well, maybe it isn't. Stay with us.

Act One. My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult.

Ira Glass

Act One. Act One of our show today is the story of somebody who tried to get closer to the real thing and tried, and why in the end it did not go too well. Kelly McEvers was a newspaper writer here in Chicago and started to get interested in stories that she was hearing about girl gang members. Now, she was somebody who did not know much about the gang world. But she got an assignment and tried to get closer to the real thing.

Kelly Mcevers

I bought a $50 car. It was a beat-up 1983 Dodge Shadow. And I started just sort of riding around the neighborhood. I'd had a couple social workers through friends who'd said, if you stop by this one corner and ask for so-and-so, maybe he'll help you meet so-and-so. So that's how I did it. I'd go in the afternoons in my $50 car and just sort of drive around and ask for people. And my first good connection was two twins, a set of twins, over in the Humboldt Park area. I drove up in my car and they thought I was a custy.

Ira Glass

A custy meaning?

Kelly Mcevers

Meaning someone who wants to purchase drugs. Custy, short for customer, I guess. So they came running up to my car. And they're like, you straight? You straight? What you need? What you want? And I was like, well, that's not really what I'm doing here. I'm a friend of so-and-so's and I'm a reporter and I want to know about girls. And they said, oh, you want to know about girls? And they jumped in my car and we went riding around. And that's how it got started.

Ira Glass

And so at first when you were hanging around with them, you kept a little glossary for yourself?

Kelly Mcevers

Yeah. It was pretty academic. I tried to write down all of the strange words that they said that I didn't understand, and then, of course, use them in a sentence as well.

Ira Glass

Wow. How very 11th grade of you.

Kelly Mcevers

I know.

Ira Glass

What would you do when you would just hang out with them?

Kelly Mcevers

Hanging out is a lot of driving around and seeing who's where and who's doing what with whom, and then going to the next spot and gossiping about what you saw at the last spot. They're 17 years old. There's really not that much going on. They don't go to school. They don't work. There's just not a lot to talk about except each other. And there was always someone fighting with someone. There was always some sort of drama going on. At any given time in the day, some girl was mad at somebody else. And it was more that it was different than anything I'd ever known than it being really this criminally exciting experience that I thought it was going to be.

Ira Glass

Well, it sounds like the excitement was simply the excitement of being in high school, even though they weren't in high school. But basically, it was the excitement of being 17.

Kelly Mcevers

Slowly-- and I don't know when this started to happen, because I really wasn't conscious of it. The only reason I know it happened is because my friends tell me now. I started to dress a little bit differently. I started wearing lots of sports T-shirts and jeans and sweatpants and platform shoes, and pulling my hair back, and wearing darker lipstick, and just starting to fit in-- trying to fit in-- all for the sake of the story of course, in my mind at the time.

Ira Glass

How were you talking?

Kelly Mcevers

Just a little bit with an edge. "Hey, Kelly. Whassup? How you doin' Pista? Oh, what's goin' on?" You know, just a little bit. Maybe that sounds like a lot. But if you're standing around with a group of people, you want to sort of fit in. A little bit of that, a little bit of "damn," you know. "Oh, look at him. He's fine." You know, maybe not "foyne." I wouldn't say it like that. But just a little, "fine." You know, something. And definitely sort of a little more head movement and gesturing that I wouldn't do before.

Ira Glass

At one point, you took them to this restaurant Leo's?

Kelly Mcevers

Yeah.

Ira Glass

OK, this is this sort of hipster restaurant here in Chicago. And so what happens?

Kelly Mcevers

I'm sort of doing an interview with them. But it just turns into very funny conversation. They're very loud and opinionated. And at one point, a young woman who looks like a rock star says to Linda, this girl that I'm interviewing, "Is anyone using that chair?"

And she's like, "Yeah, my foot." And she's just kidding really. But this girl's very upset and sort of offended. And she's like, "No, no, no, you can have my chair. I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding, honey."

And she's like, "Yeah, whatever. It's OK," or something. Like, "I don't need your chair anyway." And it was so funny to me. Because I got to be on their side of it. I was with them as they were fighting with someone who normally would be me, I guess.

Ira Glass

So how far did it go?

Kelly Mcevers

I was working with a photographer. And she had just come on as a photographer from another city and was really trying to make a good impression and was trying to be very professional about the whole thing. And I feel so bad because I think I sucked her into this whole thing. And so one night we were driving around with a bunch of people on our way to the beach. And we had two carloads of people and she was driving.

And all of a sudden, the other car full of mostly gang guys-- we were with some gang guys too-- started racing us. They took off from the light and started to fool around. We were going down Fullerton Avenue, a very busy street, going eastbound toward the lake. And so the guys in our car were like, "Come on, Heather. Come on, you can do it. Just bust through these lights."

And she's like, "No. I can't do that. No. I can't do that."

So I'm behind her going, "Come on, Heather. Come on. We really got to do this. I mean, they'll really think we're cool." That wasn't what I was saying, but that was what I was thinking. Like, you've got to do this, Heather. You have to do it. And she didn't want to do it. And she did.

Ira Glass

She did? She ran the lights?

Kelly Mcevers

She ran the lights.

Ira Glass

She drag raced up Fullerton Avenue?

Kelly Mcevers

She drove 75 miles an hour on Fullerton Avenue. And she won.

Ira Glass

And so were you right? Did they respect you after that?

Kelly Mcevers

I don't think they respected us. For the night, yes. Did it last throughout these months where I thought I was going to get this great story? Probably not. That night, yeah.

"Oh Heather, you're so cool." We got back to the neighborhood. She was very popular that night. "You shoulda seen her go. We didn't think a white chick could do that, but--" You know, that sort of thing.

Ira Glass

Did it occur to you at any point during that-- I have crossed a line?

Kelly Mcevers

No. Not then. There was a point, and I don't know when it was, that I just sort of stopped taking notes, stopped interviewing people, and just started living with them and not being someone who was documenting them.

Ira Glass

And when you think about it, what happened?

Kelly Mcevers

I guess I just thought everything was becoming a means to an end, that the more time I spent with them, I would eventually have that one experience that then I would take notes. I think that's how I explained it to myself.

Ira Glass

You kept expecting that there might be some other deeper gang experience than the one you were having?

Kelly Mcevers

Right.

Ira Glass

It's interesting, because in a way what you're saying is that you expected that this just sort of hanging around-- well, this isn't the real gang life. The real gang life is still those fights and shootings which are about to happen. So you were expecting that at some point, I'm going to be so inside, they're going to take me to that, not realizing that the actual gang life is actually just hanging around on the street gossiping about who is whose girlfriend.

Kelly Mcevers

And selling drugs. And fighting about who should have the drugs and who owes who $10 and who slept with whose boyfriend.

Ira Glass

Before you got into this situation, what did you think the appeal of that life would be, gang life?

Kelly Mcevers

I thought it would be, like I said, much more criminal. I thought I would see big gang fights. Not like the Jets or anything in West Side Story, but I really thought that I would see groups of people fighting each other. And I've heard numerous stories about these types of fights. But I never saw them. So even from my initial interviews, the stories that I was hearing about what was going on in these neighborhoods, I thought I would see that. I never saw anyone get hurt. I saw a drive-by shooting blocks away, a car driving by and shooting at someone. They weren't hurt. I'm saying this like I'm disappointed. I didn't see this overly criminal life that I thought I was going to see.

Ira Glass

And is that because it wasn't actually going on?

Kelly Mcevers

Well, yes. At least in this particular gang, it's about business. It's about making money and selling drugs.

Ira Glass

But selling drugs is a criminal activity. And seeing them sell drugs is witnessing a criminal business.

Kelly Mcevers

That's true. Mm-hmm. I guess I became as blase about it as everyone else in the neighborhood.

Ira Glass

Did you worry at any point that you were fetishizing, that it's easy to fetishize what these lives were like?

Kelly Mcevers

Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Ira Glass

Tell me about that.

Kelly Mcevers

Yeah. It made really great anecdotes. And people thought it was very funny. I mean, it is funny. But it's also very serious, what their lives are like. Even though they just sort of hang out and sell a couple drugs here and there, they still know what it's like to find your boyfriend dead in a car. Death is always sort of present.

Ira Glass

Is it your impression that the fantasy is spinning through their heads as well?

Kelly Mcevers

Yeah, absolutely.

Ira Glass

How do they see it?

Kelly Mcevers

I believed their perception of themselves. They see it as very-- the life, the world. You have to live the life to know the life, this very, very hard place to be. Yet they wouldn't be anywhere else.

Ira Glass

In their minds, is it this glamorous, criminal, outsider life?

Kelly Mcevers

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Ira Glass

But is the life that you're leading the life that you're actually leading or the life that you tell yourself you're leading?

Kelly Mcevers

For me at the time, it was the one I was telling myself I was leading.

Ira Glass

Well, and for them.

Kelly Mcevers

Yeah.

Ira Glass

But I mean, I think it's easy to make that sound sort of silly. But I have to say, there are a lot of people who are going through life with a little movie in their head that's different than what's actually happening.

Kelly Mcevers

So maybe I shouldn't be so upset about doing this. I thought, and still do think, that I had the greatest job in the world when I did this story. If I can do this, if I can hang out, if I can become somebody else for a summer, that's a great job.

Ira Glass

Kelly McEvers.

[MUSIC- "I AM A CLICHE" BY X-RAY SPEX]

Act Two. Black Like Me.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Black Like Me. Well, our program today is about what happens when you try to turn yourself into the real thing, some notion of the real thing, an idea which is always a kind of fiction, a kind of cliche. Glenn Loury is a professor at Boston University. He's written a fair amount about black people trying to define what it is to be a real black person. He does not like the idea of cultural uniformity. I remember him once actually defending the notion that if a black person likes Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, then that is still a black thing to do, because a black person is doing it. He rejects a kind of rigid cultural conformity, as I say. But recently he had this experience with his son.

Glenn Loury

Oh, this was in South Suburban Boston. We were walking in one of the forest preserves around here-- a Sunday, mid-afternoon, it was in the winter time-- just to get out and find something to do. So we'd driven into the forest and parked and were just walking along. And yeah, we stumbled on this frozen lake. And there were guys out there playing hockey.

And my son, who at the time was probably three or four years old, was really interested in what was going on and started squealing and straining to get away from me. He would have run out on the ice and joined them if I'd have let him. And all I could think about was, all of these guys are white. They were all New England guys who liked to play hockey. And I didn't want my son out there doing that. I wanted him to play basketball or something respectable.

Some of those things die hard. And even when I had this intellectual position rejecting that kind of imposition of cultural uniformity in the name of blackness, still, when it came down to my kid and what his enthusiasms would be, I had rather hoped they'd be closer to something that I could recognize from my growing up on the South Side of Chicago. Sadly, my kid is growing up on the South Side of Boston.

Ira Glass

John Simpkins grew up in Lexington, South Carolina, a small town in a segregated black neighborhood. It was tightly knit. On his block, six of the houses were relatives. But when he went away to college at Harvard, he found that other black students had a very different picture of what it meant to be black in America.

John Simpkins

The students who weren't from small towns had this very definite image of blackness and what it meant to be an African American. And in most cases, that image was rooted more in Western Africa, or in Africa in general, instead of the South. And I thought the ironic thing was that students who weren't from the South tended to look down upon the South if you weren't from Miami or Atlanta or one of the huge Southern cities. Anyone who wasn't from any of those areas was viewed as being kind of backward.

Ira Glass

In their view, was it almost an inauthentic black experience?

John Simpkins

I think they viewed it as being a powerless black experience. There was an embrace of this sort of radical black nationalism, at least the words of radical black nationalism, with very little of the actions of radical black nationalism.

Ira Glass

What did their backgrounds tend to be? Where were they from?

John Simpkins

Most of them tended to be from cities, mostly Northern cities. A lot of them were from, at least in my mind, fairly well-off or at least middle-class families.

Ira Glass

And as far as you were concerned, was it that the sense of identity and group identity that they wanted, that's something you felt like you just had when you were growing up in the South in a small town?

John Simpkins

Right.

Glenn Loury

We do live in a community where we're the only black family on this block. Now, the school that our boys go to is a thoroughly integrated school. 25% of the student body is Japanese-speaking. But the kind of close-knit and all-encompassing experience of a black community, which both my wife and I knew growing up, is not something that they're ever going to have. And yet, we think the issue of race is sufficiently important. We want them to be able to feel comfortable with their racial identity, to be able to not have to get to be 18 years old and then go off to college and all of a sudden determine that they're going to have to find out what this blackness is about.

John Simpkins

That was one of the more disturbing aspects of it. And that there was this attitude of hip radicalism embraced by people who really hadn't experienced what it meant to be on the other side of that coin.

Ira Glass

The other side being?

John Simpkins

Being growing up either-- whether in the city or even in a small town-- in a lower-middle-class or lower-class family.

Ira Glass

And did you view a lot of this as just posing?

John Simpkins

I viewed a lot of it as posing. And I thought that there was little opportunity to discuss the range of what it meant to be a black person in America.

Glenn Loury

I mean, one of the things that my wife and I live most in fear of is that having neglected attention to this question earlier in the children's life, they will then rebel later on and lapse into some kind of formulaic blackness that is stilted and narrow. We want them to think you can learn the Japanese language, or the Arabic language, for that matter, or you can learn to play the cello and still be black. There's nothing un-black or uncool about any of those activities.

Ira Glass

Is there a part of you where you feel like your kids are missing something by not growing up in a segregated black community?

Glenn Loury

Yeah. They're missing something. But it's OK. This is the way of the world. There are benefits and there are costs. And I think the costs outweigh the benefits of living in that kind of society.

Our kids take a lot of stuff for granted. They just assume that the world is their oyster. They don't have to overcome some barriers or to make some discovery that they can do anything. They take it for granted that everything is possible for them. And I don't think that kind of sensibility can be fostered when you're living in a ghetto. It's very clear that everything is not possible for you. That's why it's a ghetto.

John Simpkins

A lot of them grew up in integrated environments. And in a few cases, there were even kids who had gone to the best schools and had the best educations, from Exeter or Andover, schools of that sort, who came to college. And it became their political awakening. But what I found interesting was that once college was over, they returned to this lifestyle that they had led before they left to go to college.

Ira Glass

Explain that a little more. What do you mean?

John Simpkins

This is where a lot of the comparisons between the black middle class, or the black student population at Harvard, and the white middle-class students really comes into play. Especially during the '60s, when a lot of white students went away to school and engaged in experimental activity, they left and took jobs in the corporate world. Or a lot of people would say that they sold out. And I don't even think that that's necessarily the case. But the same things happened with the black students at Harvard, in that there was a lot of posturing. It was a heavily politicized environment. But really once the rubber met the road, those were the same students who took jobs on Wall Street or who went to law school or who went to business school.

Ira Glass

So their college activism was just a little pleasurable hiatus from the identities that they had had before and the identities they were going to have after?

John Simpkins

Right. Right.

Glenn Loury

I know that my boys will be black in a way so very different from that which characterized my own life. And my thinking now is that the best thing is that they wear that racial identity lightly. Not that they'd be indifferent to their blackness or ashamed of it, or look at it as an irrelevancy, but that I'd hope that they would be able to be black in a way that leaves them flexible and adaptable and open and not parochial and narrow.

Ira Glass

Glenn Loury and John Simpkins. Coming up, a man calls Robert De Niro chicken to his face. Well, not really to his face, but it's still kind of interesting. 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, invite a variety of different kinds of people to tackle that theme with a variety of different kinds of stories. Today's program, The Real Thing, stories of people trying to live up to some ideal, or refusing to. We have arrived at Act Three of our program.

Act Three. Drawl.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Drawl. There are tens of millions of real Southerners in this country. They shop. They live among us. They look just like you and me, my friend. But one industry does not seem to notice the reality. Writer Mark Schone is a Southern expatriate who has noticed.

Mark Schone

My wife and I, since we'd been in lock-down with each other, oh, these past nine years, have developed a bit of shorthand. If one of us says something the other has heard so many times before that tears of boredom flow, the victim has a right to protest. The victim says, "That's on the tape." As in, that's on your tape-- the list of stories and obsessions you've rewound so often I could sing along with them in my sleep.

But if we're lying in the queen size at night watching TV and chance on some misbegotten soup of dropped R's and fake I's that's supposed to be a Southern accent, my tape starts jumping. It must be heard. I must blurt, "Foghorn Leghorn. Foghorn Leghorn."

My wife says, "Tape," and we change the channel.

For me, all that is cornball about movie Southern accents, all that is fake, is embodied by that would-be mac daddy of the barnyard, the animated chicken known as Foghorn Leghorn. He was conceived as a parody of the genteel Old South cliches from movies like Gone With the Wind. He was a preening dandy and a fool for the ladies.

Foghorn Leghorn

Go away, boy. You bother me. I got work to do.

Mark Schone

The late, legendary Mel Blanc didn't try and do an actual Southern accent.

Foghorn Leghorn

You better, I say, you better keep a sharp eye on us chickens.

Mark Schone

He was spread thin being a martian and a putty tat and a tweety bird. And this was a satire starring a big white rooster. It wasn't about sounding real. 60 years later, though, actors are still speaking Foghorn, and they think it is real.

I'm an authority on Southern accents because I'm a typical, rootless, modern Southerner, meaning I was born outside the South, just like Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, and moved as a kid with my Midwestern parents to a brand new subdivision chopped out of the swamp in Southeastern Virginia. A babysitter taught me what y'all meant when I was seven years old. In high school, my rebellion against my liberal college professor dad was to hang out with drug-dealing rednecks. I whimpered in the backseat with a beer clenched between my thighs as they drove the back roads at 100 miles per hour, swerving through the swamp fog, their eyes closed and giggling. But as long as they looked and talked like Allen Collins of Lynyrd Skynyrd, as long as they had that mean, feral glamour, I thought they were cool. I talked like them on purpose. It thrilled me when a guy on my school bus grunted, "Groundhog? My mama don't eat it but my daddy do."

I went to college 1,000 miles away in Nashville and heard a stronger, twangier accent than the coastal burr I grew up with. And I moved to Georgia for a few more years of seasoning. By the time I left the South, I had a pretty good grasp of the range of regional dialects. And I knew that the movies had them all comically wrong. I would argue that nearly every vowel that comes out of nearly every actor's mouth is wrong. But for outsiders, here are the easiest problems to spot. Let's take Keanu Reeves in Devil's Advocate.

Keanu Reeves

Is it your testimony, Ms. Black, that between the hours of 6:10 and 9:40, you were engaged in sexual congress with the defendant?

Mark Schone

Well, maybe that's too easy. How about someone who has never actually turned down a script, like Dan Aykroyd. He played the son in Driving Miss Daisy.

Dan Aykroyd

I'm afraid that my loss up here and my gain down here have given me an air of competence I don't really possess.

Mark Schone

Leaving aside all the other things wrong with this way-Foghorn soundbite, very few white people in the South still drop their R's. They say "Here," not "Heeya." A linguist at the University of Georgia told me, "If you want to find somebody with that old plantation accent, you're talking about people 75 years old."

A friend in Atlanta was more emphatic. "Those people are dead. Before they died, they were rich. Or they lived in the coastal or Piedmont areas of the South. Up in the hills, they always said their R's. And now, in the age of seven hours of TV a day and the air conditioner and the massive influx of interlopers like me and Newt and Dick, nearly every white devil in the South has followed suit, especially white devils under 50. We say R.

Lesson two.

Tom Hanks

My name's Forrest. Forrest Gump. My mama always said that life was like a box of chocolates.

Mark Schone

There are two kinds of I's. The I sound in a word like "life," or "like," or "night," or "nice," is different from the I in "five," or "ride," or "time." Real Southerners make a distinction between the I's. My experience in three states over 20 years was that they said "life," and they said "time." "Lifetime," not "laff-tahm." Not many people said, "laff," or "lahck." If they did, they were considered hillbillies. And in fact, they almost always really did hail from Appalachia or maybe a piney wood town in East Texas. But in the movies, even a kid from a fine, old, big-columned Alabama home-- like Forrest Gump-- says, "Laff is lack a box of chocolates."

Tom Hanks

Life was like a box of chocolates.

Mark Schone

Lesson three, the South is really big. People from Savannah and the coal fields and the Bayou don't talk the same. And they're not usually in the same room, unless they're on vacation in Florida, which is another part of the South. But in the movies, people with radically different accents turn out to be mother and daughter or lifelong neighbors. Listen to the way Dolly Parton, Sally Fields, and Julia Roberts pronounce "color" in Steel Magnolias. Fields is supposed to be Roberts' mother.

Dolly Parton

What are your colors, Shelby?

Sally Field

Her colors are pink and pink.

Julia Roberts

My colors are blush and bashful, Mama.

Mark Schone

Once upon a time, I couldn't figure out why the actors and directors in LA and New York couldn't spend any time listening to actual Southerners talk. Because if they did, they'd learn very quickly how far the film dialect had drifted from reality. But after I moved to New York, I realized that I was just living amid hicks again. This time they were urban hicks, and the world outside their hollow was one big movie set.

The South was a movie. If you went there, you spoke a language invented by a British woman named Vivien Leigh, also known as Scarlett or Blanche, with an assist by New Jersey's Rod Steiger as the racist sheriff, and San Francisco's Mel Blanc as that uppity chicken. The South was a cartoon.

I admit, the natives played along. They scammed the hicks by selling more and more preposterous stories about white columns and crazy aunts in the attic. They cooked up as much Gothic kitsch as the market would bear. A guy from St. Louis renamed himself Tennessee and made a mint. It was a great racket, but it meant that Southerners never really saw themselves on screen. They still don't.

Robert De Niro

Counselor, is that you?

Mark Schone

It was the remake of Cape Fear that gave me my moment of clarity. I hunkered in a Manhattan multiplex awestruck. Robert De Niro was trying to impersonate a dirt-eating psycho. And yes, it was nuts. But not the way De Niro intended.

Robert De Niro

Come out, come out, wherever you are.

Mark Schone

New York mook was bumping uglies with Cajun and Carolina. It was the worst thing I'd ever heard. I rolled in it like a happy doggy with something dead.

Robert De Niro

It's going to take a hell of a lot more than that, counselor, to prove you're better than me.

Mark Schone

When it was over and the credits drifted past, I locked onto the one that read Dialect Coach. Now I knew. After that, every time Foghorn turned up in a movie, I'd check to see who his dialect coach was. Every Southern ex-pat I knew came out of Cape Fear going, "Huh?" But the man who taught De Niro to sound like an Appalachian Springsteen was so proud he bragged about it. I would see his ads in the showbiz trade papers and get all twitchy. "To Robert De Niro, congratulations, Sam Chwat."

Sam Chwat

Well, my name is Sam Chwat. I'm Director of New York Speech Improvement Services. We're the largest company of licensed speech therapists in this country to, uh-- tsk. We're the largest company of licensed speech therapists in the United States, specializing in accent acquisition and accent elimination.

Mark Schone

I dropped in on Chwat at his Manhattan offices, where boxes of celebrity junk spilled onto the floor. He was born and raised in Brooklyn speaking Yiddish, and he's never lived more than an hour from Grand Central. But he has a Masters in speech and 20 years of experience in accents. At first, he specialized in removing them. Then he started doing implants.

Sam Chwat

I trained Robert De Niro to do an Appalachian accent for Cape Fear. Leonardo DiCaprio, a New York accent for Basketball Diaries. Julia Roberts and Andie MacDowell lost their Southern accents with me before their film careers began. Elle Macpherson, Kathleen Turner, Benjamin Bratt, a wide variety of people.

Mark Schone

What would you say you're best at amongst the accents that you know?

Sam Chwat

I suppose my Italian is all right, you know? My Italian itself is not so good, you know? But I do a pretty good Italian.

Mark Schone

His Southern accent was every bit as convincing. He told me he had a whole posse of relatives down in Savannah who taught him the local lingo. He demonstrated.

Sam Chwat

It depends on the sort of Southern accent you're talkin' about. If it's an Appalachian sort of accent, it's one that I've taught many, many times. There's a kind of broad-based one, more indicative of, say, the deep South, where the R's disappear after the vowel, let's say.

Mark Schone

Which is Hollywood Southern in a nutshell. It's the way people in movies talk, not people in real life. I told Chwat I'd never met anyone who spoke with the thing he was calling a Southern accent. I pointed out that the people who drop their R's were not the same people as the ones who said, "Lack," and now the R-less people were almost extinct anyway. He defended himself. He backpedaled. And often, he stayed silent. He told me I had a sensitive ear. But it doesn't take a sensitive ear. Listen to this clip from one of his star clients.

Julia Roberts

If my daddy catches you in here, the question of whether or not I can carry your children will not matter. He will cut your thing off.

Mark Schone

That's Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias. A linguist will tell you that a middle-class 20-something in that town, in that recent year, would say her R's. She'd say, "whether" and "your," and "matter." A linguist told me that. But Chwat has bought into the cartoon so completely, he thinks Roberts herself used to talk that way when she was growing up in suburban Atlanta. He claims that back before she was a star, when he helped her get rid of her Southern accent, here were the things he had to fix.

Sam Chwat

Pretty garden-variety Southern substitutions. "Tin," instead of "ten." The "ah" for "I." Dropping an R after a vowel-- "heeya," "theya," "moh," instead of "here," "there," or "more."

Mark Schone

Except, of course, she didn't talk that way. If you want confirmation, all you have to do is ask someone who knew her then.

Richard Epps

I've been a guidance counselor at Campbell High School for 21 years.

Mark Schone

I asked Richard Epps, a guidance counselor at her Smyrna, Georgia high school, who doesn't talk that way either.

Richard Epps

She was a student here. And she was a student aide in our office.

Mark Schone

So you had daily contact with her?

Richard Epps

Yes. Surely did.

Mark Schone

Now, this'll be your 21st year.

Richard Epps

Yes, sir.

Mark Schone

In the 21 years that you've been at Campbell High School, have you had any white students who dropped their R's?

Richard Epps

I don't recall any of that at all. I don't recall any, to tell you the truth.

Mark Schone

How about Julia? Did Julia ever drop her R's?

Richard Epps

Absolutely not.

Mark Schone

And that's why Roberts sounds so fake when she drops them in Steel Magnolias. Because she's never done it before. I guess what happened is that when she showed up on set with her own real, suburban drawl, it wasn't close enough to the cartoon for the powers that be, and they sent for Chwat. It's like something out of the movie Hollywood Shuffle, some white guy telling a black actor, "Um, can you make that blacker?"

One reason Hollywood can't get Southern right is that Southern won't hold still. The real South is changing. Real Southerners go to malls and eat at The Olive Garden. The media tells them that the way they speak is either quaint or a symptom of Gomer-dom. So if they're the slightest bit upwardly mobile, they try not to sound too you-know-what.

Sometimes Hollywood does make a semi-honest effort to keep it real. Robert De Niro listened to real people speak for his role in Cape Fear. He sent his personal assistant into a Southern prison to tape interviews with inmates of the same age, criminal record, and hillbilly bona fides as his character in the script. He picked a tape he liked and labored with Sam Chwat for weeks to perfect his imitation. Sometimes, however, the will, the intent, the technique is flawless, and the flesh still fails.

Robert De Niro

I am like God, and God like me. I am as large as God. He is as small as I. He cannot above me nor I beneath him be.

Mark Schone

Some actors just can't do accents.

Robert De Niro

Counselor?

Ira Glass

Writer Mark Schone is a reporter living among the Yankees in New York City, hoping not to run into a certain actor.

[MUSIC- "SOUTHERN ACCENTS" BY JOHNNY CASH]

Act Four. Real Love.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Real Love. There's the real thing when it comes to your idea of what job you want, what house you want, what person you want to fall in love with. And until you find the real thing that you seek, life is the same story over and over and over again, either played as comedy or as tragedy. A story of missing the real thing yet again. In one of our live shows, Los Angeles writer and performer Sandra Tsing Loh tells what happened to her when she signed up for a computer dating service. A folder arrived with a name and some vital stats.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Robert Blair, 37, single. I look in his folder and I can't believe it. My mouth goes dry. For one thing, unlike what you'd expect from a dating service, Robert Blair is really, really attractive. No, I mean really. Straight nose, clean jaw line, smoldering blue eyes. We are talking Ralph Fiennes. Ralph Fiennes has basically donned a crew neck sweater and is living among us in the Southland.

[LAUGHTER]

I turn the page. Robert Blair is an architect by profession. Time has been spent in Italy. Interests include opera, foreign movies, badminton. Marital status-- never. My heart is pounding. My eyes are tearing up. Oh my god, I'm thinking. Oh my god. And this panic is starting to seize me. Not just the primary panic of having found the perfect man, but the secondary panic of knowing that other women are looking at this perfect man, and then the tertiary panic of realizing that I'm feeling this panic.

And when you feel panic, dates don't tend to go well. Somehow the panic invades your face causing these contortions to happen in the middle of some casual comment like, would you like some half-and-half? Equal? Your face will split open and this demon, this [DEMON VOICE], will come out. And in that instant, you have done it, that terrible, unthinkable thing. You have pierced the dating membrane, that is, the membrane that covers all dating people and keeps them safe from each other.

As illustration, take Phillip, a perfect Los Feliz bachelor I was privileged to date a few times. You know the type-- successful 36-year-old film editor, or something. Great haircut, zippy Hugo Boss jacket. You know, one of those smart, funny, presentable men who form that eerie, hollow-eyed, Children of the Corn phalanx across our fair city. Any-hoo, like others of his ilk, the perfect Phillip package was coated with this impenetrable dating membrane. To wit, you were supposed to see Phillip once a week at most, twice a month more typically. But you were never to contact him in between as though he were some sort of undercover spy. To phone him at work was to trigger that bomb thing.

Any-hoo, Phillip kept trying to train me in the new system. And I knew that I should get with it. I knew that it was the law of Dating-land and that if I didn't follow it, I would lose my all-important Dating-land citizenship. I wouldn't be allowed to go out on any more meaningless, un-fun dates such as these.

So Phillip would smile suavely the next morning, handing me my delicious, warm, fresh, pumpkin muffin to-go. "Call you in 10 days or so?"

"10 days? That's almost two weeks," I'd stab at in alarm, eyes wide. Picture last night's mascara gone spookily raccoon-y.

"I'm out of town," he'd enunciate, as you do when telling a large, wattled, eager Labrador to sit but she cannot quite remember how.

He repeated the command, "I'm out of town. Out of town. In 10 days or so, I will call you. OK? I'll call you. Really." Oh, I remember the drill. Dutifully, I repeated the phrases he had taught me, unnatural as Arabic.

"Well, have a great time. Jeez, I've got a busy week too. Call me whenever. It is no problem at all." But once I got going, I just couldn't stop, so, "there's a phone. You call me. I won't call. No, no, no." Delivery became so broad, so garish, so Jo Anne Worley-like that like a rare stag in the woods, my perfect bachelor would be spooked. And after 10 days or so, Phillip did not call again.

But I'm not going to make that mistake tonight, oh no. For once in my life, things are going to be different. For once in my life, I'm going to be silent. The forest green door opens and there stands Robert Blair. Crisp white linen, pressed khakis, tortoise-shell rims. Oh my god, I think, feeling the force of gravity buckling my knees.

"Hello," is all I say, "Robert." With perfect manners, Robert Blair shows me around his perfect place. We are talking coved ceilings, Mexican Paver tile, totally redone hardwood floors, muted track lighting, Sub-Zero fridge, even a utility sunroom with a pull-out ironing board. You can almost hear a choir of angels singing.

"Sandra," Robert says behind me, "would you like some champagne?" [SQUEAK]

[LAUGHTER]

And there stands Robert Blair with two gleaming flutes of champagne and an Italian, hand-painted, ceramic plate upon which he's arranged Gorgonzola cheese, grapes, and English water crackers in a perfect fan.

[LAUGHTER]

I am home, I find myself thinking. I am home.

The bistro Robert takes me to is a delightful, intimate place aglow with little candles. "You like opera," I say.

"Yes," he says, "I do."

"I've heard Madame Butterfly is coming to the music center. I saw something about it in the Los Angeles Times."

"Really," he says, "Did you?"

"Maybe we could--" no. Too early. Retract. "It's just such a great opera is all. I love it. I love opera."

"Butterfly is alright," he says, "for a warhorse. Americans certainly insist on their favorites. I sometimes think if I'm forced to sit through another Boheme, I'll scream."

"Yes, I know what you mean. The opera world is all so exhausting, isn't it?"

His smoldering blue eyes meet mine, lock. "Yes, my dear," he says. "Exhausting." What does that mean?

[LAUGHTER]

I think, wait a minute. Whoa, relax, breathe. The guy works a 10-hour day. He went to the trouble of laying out English water crackers for you in that perfect fan. It's not that he's not having fun. It's just that he's really, really tired. And now I remember this happy thing. OK, this is really good. In Robert's kitchen was this really, really fancy cappuccino maker, because cappuccino was his habit. That's what he called it. "My habit." And I think, that's what Robert Blair needs after dinner. Some caffeine, a lift.

But the thing is, we can't have it here. We can't have it in this restaurant, even though it's an Italian restaurant and espresso machines keep whirring, whirring, whirring around us. Because to prolong the date, to kick things to that higher level, we need to move to a new venue to do a new activity. My god, it's barely 8:20 and the guy is all yawning and looking at his watch and going--

"Cappuccino," I say brightly. "I guess you make a mean cup of it, huh?"

"Well," he says, but then that slightly closed expression crosses his face. He pushes up his glasses. "Well, no."

"But your machine," I say, "in your kitchen."

"It doesn't work," he says abruptly.

"It doesn't work?"

"No, it is not that it does not work. It is just that it needs a new filter, a new water filter."

"You don't just use the filtered water from the white Brita jug thing in your Sub-Zero fridge?"

"Well, you could. But it is just not good."

"Well, I could go for some cappuccino," I forge on, hacking through the dense, rubbery foliage with my scimitar. "And you must be missing it if you can't make it at home. I know I miss things when I can't make them at home. [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] I've got a great idea. Why don't we go to a great cappuccino bar I know just a short walk from here on La Brea?" Clutching his arm, my hand like a pinion, I see myself reflected in Robert Blair's perfect tortoise-shell glasses. My mascara is raccoony, hair a fright wig. I have come to my date dressed like a hyena, and I cannot stop talking.

[LAUGHTER]

"It was fun," Robert Blair says, giving me a quick peck on the cheek at the door. "Sorry about having to bail early. It's just that I'm really, really tired. But thank you." The forest green door shuts behind him, locks. There are footfalls. A moment later, a light goes on upstairs.

That moment, I realize that Robert Blair is completely happy behind that curtain, alone in the perfect palace he took such great pains in showing me. He is probably leaping about in boyish stockinged feet on his perfectly appointed couches, loveseats, and pillows, throwing his arms up, jubilant, free of the burden of me. It makes me furious. I begin to shake at the iron rods of the locked gate, shake them with all my might.

"I am not done with this evening," I yell. "I am not done. You don't even have to talk to me. We don't even have to see each other again. But I want that cup of cappuccino. And I want it, uh, frothy!" But there was no answer. After a moment, ever so distantly behind double panes of glass, I hear it-- the rattle of a paper, pop open of a cork, and inevitably, the gentle murmurings of CNN.

Ira Glass

Writer Sandra Tsing Loh. Her one-woman show, Aliens in America, runs at the Tiffany Theatre in Los Angeles through October.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself, with Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Spiegel and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Starlee Kine, and Sylvia Lemus.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Today we say a temporary goodbye to Sylvia Lemus, who talked her way into a position here not long after she first appeared on our program in January of 1998 on her 18th birthday, talking about her Mexican mother's expectations of her and her expectations of herself. She's now off to college to pursue the life that she talked about pursuing back then. We wish her the best. We send her off with love. We expect to hear from her soon on these airwaves.

If you would like to buy a cassette of this program, or that one, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. You know, you can listen to most of our programs for free on the Internet, www.thisamericanlife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister who runs the site.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who may have sidled up to you on a school bus years ago and said--

Mark Schone

Groundhog? My mama don't eat it, but my daddy do.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Mark Schone

It's good with gravy.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.