Transcript

156:

What Remains
Transcript

Originally aired 03.31.2000

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/156

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. A few years back here in Chicago, we had some unusual weather and 18 people were struck by lightning in one month. 17 of them survived, and I set out to interview as many of them as would talk to me. The ones with the worst injuries remembered nothing of what happened to them. But the rest all described the moment they were hit in very similar terms. Mike Bergeron and Larry Wilson were on the golf course under an umbrella with two other guys when the lightning struck.

Mike Bergeron

All I saw was just a very bright white flash.

Larry Wilson

I think I remember a white light. And when the lightning struck, I felt no pain.

Mike Bergeron

And I can remember, or what I think I remember, is just getting knocked backward. My brain saying, hey, you've got to stand up, and nothing else would really respond.

Larry Wilson

And I was trying to call friends over. I remember that. But I couldn't speak.

Mike Bergeron

And it was like things kind of went in slow motion. Out of the corner of my eye, I can remember seeing Tony falling backward. I can remember seeing Larry falling, but it wasn't like somebody just tripping and falling on the ground. It was like it took them one or two minutes before they actually hit the ground.

Ira Glass

There's a terror to lightning. Victims say they were surrounded by friends and family. But when the bolt came, they were suddenly alone, trapped in their own bodies. The natural world turned supernatural. Georgiana Davies was at a company picnic when it just started to drizzle. She never saw the blast. She didn't suspect lightning. She says she thought it was the end of the world.

Georgiana Davies

Right before all this happened, it was like everybody just shut the sound completely out. You couldn't hear nothing. You couldn't move. It was like total silence around the world in that area where I was at. And then I started hearing humming, like bees or something, or a bunch of flies going zz-zz-zz.

And it felt like something was going to happen, but I didn't know what. And then I looked over and I saw Sylvia screaming. And I saw her mouth open but I couldn't hear her at first. It was like everything was shut out for-- I don't know if it was seconds or minutes. Or it could have been a second. And I didn't know where I was at.

Ira Glass

That's what it was like in the moment lightning struck. But in the moments after, the days and weeks after, it all started to look different. When something happens to you that is so big, so biblical, you definitely start to think about why. And most of the survivors I talked to came to the same conclusion. It was not just a coincidence, where the lightning hit.

Georgiana Davies

My own opinion, I think God's trying to tell the world something.

Lightning Victim

They say God is trying to tell us something. Well, God don't try. God is telling us something. God don't try to do nothing. He's telling us something. Beware. He's coming back, and beware and be ready.

Mike Bergeron

My belief is there's a purpose to whatever happens. There's reasons behind it.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, we try a little experiment. Usually we bring you stories of people in the middle of big experiences, whose lives are going through some sort of change, some growth, or some crisis. But sometimes, that moment of dramatic change is only half the story. The other half happens after time passes and they return to revisit that moment. Today's program is about what they find later and what remains of who and what they once were.

Our show today in three acts. Act One, I Used to Bank Here But That Was Long, Long Ago, in which David Rakoff returns to the city he grew up to find buried, frozen treasure. Act Two, Exiles on Main Street. A young Russian emigre returns to the heroes of his youth, the brave Soviet dissidents who risked their lives at the height of the Cold War who were forced out of the Soviet Union. What have they been doing all these decades, the many dissidents who resettled in comfortable houses, not just in America, but in the American suburbs? Act Three, Shopping for a Better Tomorrow, the story of a social experiment involving a supermarket and 6,000 poor people. Stay with us.

Act One. I Used To Bank Here But That Was Long, Long Ago.

Ira Glass

Act One, I Used to Bank Here But That Was Long, Long Ago. David Rakoff recently flew to Toronto, where he grew up, to revisit a time in his life that for years he joked about, he downplayed, and he tried not to think about. He tells the story of what he found.

David Rakoff

At age 22, I had Hodgkin's disease. It is a form of lymphatic cancer common among young men in their 20s. It is also highly curable, so highly curable, in fact, that I like to refer to it as "the dilettante cancer."

An old Canadian joke bears telling here. A boss says to an underling, "I'm off to Sault Ste. Marie for the weekend."

"Sault Ste. Marie," asks the employee, incredulous. "But boss, there are only whores and hockey players in Sault Ste. Marie."

"My wife is from Sault Ste. Marie."

"Oh," says the employee. "What position does she play?"

When I joke about Hodgkin's being the cancer for boys who do things in half measures, it is invariably to someone whose husband or brother or son has just died from Hodgkin's. I don't mean to denigrate other survivors or less fortunate non-survivors. My inappropriate wisecrack only serves to prove a point about myself.

On some level, despite the fact that I received both radiation and chemotherapy, I cannot escape the feeling that I was at best a cancer tourist, that my survival means I dabbled. Kind of been there, sort of done that. It has only recently occurred to me that perhaps I might stop glibly insisting that the cancer wasn't real and that the doctors popped me into an Easy-Bake Oven where a 40-watt light bulb halted the metastasis in its tracks.

What remains some 13 years after the fact? Four small tattoos, subcutaneous black dots like compass points on my torso, near-total numbness in the very tips of my fingers, as well as a palm-sized area on my right inner thigh, also without feeling, some dry mouth, and most lastingly, three straws of my pre-chemotherapized sperm in cold storage somewhere in Toronto. Like millions of tiny Walt Disneys, they wait, frozen, until the day when I will return and have them conjoined with some willing ovum and thereby fulfill their zygotic destiny, growing into children who will eventually go on to break my heart and not talk to me.

More than a desire for kids who can be fairly boring, truth be told, I just want to know where the sperm is. Easier said than done, as it turns out, because since that time, I have moved, my parents have moved, the sperm bank has moved, and the cancer hospital has moved. The traces have been thoroughly kicked over, which suits me fine. I'm not by nature terribly sentimental. I'm not a photo taker. I have no scrapbooks. I have attempted to never look back-- until now.

Along with my scar, my tattoos, and my numbness, these straws of sperm are the only things I have left from that time in my life, a period of 18 months that I have generally tried to not think about. 13 years later, at the age of 35, it's starting to seem like bad juju to continue to ignore it. And so I am off to find the straws, just in time for their putative, microscopic Bar Mitzvahs.

I was treated at PMH, the Princess Margaret Hospital, the main cancer facility in Toronto. If you were a child at any time from the 1930s through the 1950s living anywhere in the British empire, chances are you were inundated with images of the two young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. Elizabeth would eventually become Queen, of course, but Margaret was always considered to be somewhat prettier. And simply by virtue of her thwarted ascendancy to the throne, she was less duty bound, and consequently more fun, kinky almost.

As she grew up and had her serial doomed romances, Margaret gave the commonwealth public a taste of the kind of low-rent scandal we could later come to expect from the House of Windsor. It's not like she was a slattern or an embarrassment. Calling it the Princess Margaret Hospital is not like naming it the Billy Carter. It's more affectionate than that, more glamorous. The Tricia Nixon might be more apt.

Hanging on the wall on the way to the radiation room in the old hospital was a photograph of Princess Margaret's hand, taken on the occasion of the inauguration of the building. It was actually an x-ray photograph, so her highness's jewelry glows white against the bones in the vaporous gray of her invisible flesh. I look at it every time I go for treatment.

The radiation room itself is a lead-lined interior chamber of the hospital. Two red laser beams cross over the exact center of the table where the patients lie. Using the cross of four small black tattoos on my torso, the technicians line me up and ready me for the thousands of rads of radiation. The machine is bulbous, huge, and a dull hospital-green, a death ray straight out of '50s sci-fi.

I lie down and look up. Above my head, directly at eye level, someone has drawn a hastily-rendered happy face in magic marker. Underneath that is written the message, "give us a smile." Like Rita Hayworth's picture that graced the side of the atom bomb they dropped on Bikini Atoll, there's something so pathetic, so vastly outmatched about this little happy face. It is like putting a garnish on annihilation. Still, I never fail to smile. Even when I reach the point in the treatments when most of my hair has fallen out and my throat has been burned to such an extent that I cannot swallow, I smile.

[MUSIC - "CAN'T TAKE MY EYES OFF YOU" BY FRANKIE VALLI]

They haven't stopped at the happy face, either. Every time the lead door closes, latching with a booming clank, so, too, begins the music, the same song every time, the same place in the same song every time. The full horn section buildup of the chorus to the song-- "you're just too good to be true." The plutonium drops down into the central cone, a warm wind starts to blow on my chest, indicating that I'm now getting the equivalent of a lifetime's worth of the recommended dose of gamma radiation, and I smile.

The harvesting of sperm before chemotherapy is a fairly standard practice. Chemo makes you sterile. They suggest it to most male patients of a certain age. It is certainly the most important sperm sample I've ever given, but it is not the first. In 1982 as a freshman, I sold it once. Every bulletin board in my dormitory on 114th Street and Amsterdam Avenue had the following flyer-- "College men, make money now." It was an advertisement for a midtown sperm bank. We would be paid close to $50 to do, under somewhat more controlled circumstances, the very thing that was occupying a great deal of our waking lives anyway.

The lab was very interested in our seed, the sperm of the Ivy League. There's something so obscenely vital, so borderline eugenic about that image, imbued with a potency and a Riefenstahlian vision of the future. It was a stereotype much greater than the actual sum of its parts, I can assure you, given some of the knock-kneed Hebrews I went to school with, myself included.

I remember nothing from that day. I cannot tell you if there were dirty magazines, although I suspect there were. I cannot remember being embarrassed, although I'm sure I was. And I cannot remember what I was paid, although $40 cash rings a bell. The conflation of climax in commerce cannot have failed to escape my notice. At age 17, it felt like sexual transgression. I suppose it still does, since until this moment, I have never told anyone about it.

It is now a gray Toronto day in January of the new century. The new Princess Margaret facility is beautiful, occupying an old art deco insurance building. It is imposing and gray and elegant and graced in the center with a soaring, six-story atrium. It is nothing like the old hospital where I was treated. I feel a little jealous as I walk in. There's even a multi-faith chapel which I don't recall from the old place.

Outside of it, on a white board, someone on staff has written, "just a thought," and then a quote-- "joy is not in things, it is in us." It is attributed to one Robert Wagner, whose dates are 1813 to 1883. Presumably this is a different Robert Wagner than the wattle-concealing, turtleneck-wearing star of The Towering Inferno and Heart To Heart. So different a Robert Wagner, in fact, that when I tried to look him up in my Bartlett's Quotations, he is not listed.

Who is listed there, with exactly the same dates, however, is Richard Wagner, he of the proto-Nazi operas of heroic Ubermenschen. Funnily enough, Bartlett's doesn't list this lovely caveat against materialism among the composer's notable quotes. But it's a lot more suitable for an oncology chapel after all than "To be German means to carry on a matter for its own sake," don't you think?

This new place is completely devoid of anything I might recall. Not a single doctor who treated me still works here. The fondly remembered x-ray photograph of Princess Margaret's hand is also nowhere to be seen. I ask the volunteer at the desk if they brought it here from the old facility. "It was on the way to radiation," I say.

"I was also a radiation patient," she replies. "I don't remember it." I then ask her if she remembers the music during treatment. She doesn't dismiss my recollection, but she's not sure herself, it was so long ago. All memory is porous. Details can change or go missing entirely, particularly in moments of physical peril. A kind of amnesia goes hand in hand sickness, and a good thing, too. But of these two details-- that x-ray photograph, that music-- I am sure. I think.

It's not all that hard to locate the missing sperm lab. A few phone calls and I find that it has been moved lock, stock, and barrel to another more centrally-located hospital. When I finally call them up directly to see if they still have my straws, they know all too well who I am. They have been waiting for me, or more precisely, for my money.

There are apparently years of storage fees outstanding. I owe close to $1,000. What would have happened if I had never checked up on this, I wonder? Would I one day be walking past some pawn shop in Toronto, and there in the window next to the watches, the saxophone, the old Canadian Legion of Honor war medallions are three straws of my semen falling out in a dusty shaft of sunlight?

The folks at the lab view me with suspicion, but not because I am a deadbeat dad. What the folks at the lab seem disquieted by is this radio story. They don't really understand why I want to tell it. I am reduced to using icky tricks, preambling each phone call by describing myself as having been "a cancer patient," which seems a little melodramatic to me and leaves them completely unmoved anyway.

Or if I'm not being treacly, I'm playing the ridiculous schlemiel, stammering and apologizing. It leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth, and all to no avail. What begins as frosty but cordial relations between the nursing manager and myself devolves steadily. I fly to Toronto and she refuses to speak with me outright. I am Scrooge, revisiting Christmas past, walking through a room, trying to right a wrong and being completely unheard and unable to physically manifest. I will not be able to see the facility, tour the vault or wherever it is they keep the straws, or ask her my many medical questions. My audience with the sperm of the Ivy League is denied.

I recall the last time I saw these fugitive children of mine. It was in the summer of 1987. By that time, my illness was fairly advanced. I was some 35 pounds underweight, an old man at the age of 23. Virtually the last thing on my mind was onanism. I had been told if I could get the sample downtown to the lab within 45 minutes, I could do the harvest at home. To this end, the lab technician at the sperm bank had given me some sterile containers.

In the abstract, this sounded far more comfortable, producing my sample in the privacy of my childhood bedroom. But privacy isn't really the name of the game when your mother has to drive you to the hospital. I've never been licensed by a sitting government to drive a car, and I'm far too weak to take public transport. By happy coincidence, my mother's office is two blocks away from the hospital. After breakfast, she says to me euphemistically, "I'm going to start the car. Why don't you go upstairs and get ready," emphasis and winking italics my own. If this freaks her out, she doesn't let on. She's a physician herself, so it might just seem par for the course to tell your youngest child to go upstairs and salute the archbishop and then join you in the car.

My deed done-- not my finest effort after what has arguably been half a lifetime of practice-- I put on my coat and grab the jar. It is made of clear plastic. In college, my friend's parents came to New York for a psychoanalysts convention. Getting onto a hotel elevator crowded with their colleagues, my friend turned to his mother and stage whispered, "Jocasta, I want you." But it is just me and my mother in the car. There are no Freudians to entertain with the discomfort of the Oedipal situation.

Even in my weakened state, I'm certainly not going to ride next to my mother with a transparent vial of spooge in my lap. I look around the kitchen for a suitable bag and find the perfect one. It is four by six of white paper. It has clearly been in the kitchen since I was very young, because when I turn it over, I see that it's printed with the image of an orange pumpkin and a black cat, and in dripping, blood-soaked calligraphy, the words "trick or treat."

Among my destinations on this trip up to Toronto is the site of the old hospital. I'm told it's being used now as a homeless shelter. It was in one of Toronto's few rubby-dub neighborhoods. There were a lot of hookers and also a Christian ministry back when I was a patient. The area has clearly been cleaned up, because I don't see any hookers or visibly Christian folks either. And the purported homeless people going into the old Princess Margaret all look like backpacking Northern Europeans.

I stand in the circular driveway, the place where the smoking patients used to congregate with their IV stands and enjoy their last cigarettes. I think of that song "This Used to be My Playground." I'm trying to actually feel something about the whole thing as I stand there, but I'm not really coming up with anything. The building is possibly one of the more important structures in my life. I feel like I should well up with some sort of nostalgic yearning, mourning my youth, anything. But it's just not happening, which is very strange. Or not.

Once on my way home from radiation, a man came running out of the Knights of Columbus chapter near the hospital. Another man came running after him. And like a cartoon panel come to life, the man giving chase actually yelled, "Stop! Thief!" I remember thinking to myself, "well, that's very cliche." I was close to the robber. I could have stuck my foot out and tripped him perhaps, but I didn't. He made it across the street, dodging traffic, and was out of sight in a moment.

The man from the Knights of Columbus stood frustrated on the sidewalk as the cars rushed by. He turned and gave me a dirty look for my inaction. I wanted to say something. I wanted to explain how weak and tired and sick I was at that point, but more than that how I had essentially let go of any sense of agency. I could lie on a table. They could shoot me full of gamma rays. I would eat what was put in front of me. The hair could fall from my head. My throat could be burned. But I was not involved. I was a stranger here. That he could even see me standing there seemed vaguely surprising.

They say that times of crisis are the true test of one's character. I really wouldn't know, since my character took a powder that year, leaving in its stead a jewel-bright hardness. I was at my very cleverest that year, an airless, relentless kind of quippiness. Every time a complex human emotion threatened to break the surface of my consciousness, out would come a joke. Come on, give us a smile.

I was Thanatos' rodeo clown. I still am. And Eros' as well, as it turns out. Years later, in a tender embrace in bed with my first real boyfriend, he said my name. "Oh, David." I stopped, sat up, and responded in my best Ed Wynn, "mm-yesss?" This kind of behavior essentially killed things between us.

There was a period during the illness when I was at my very sickest, at 115 pounds hovering in and out of consciousness. This month and a half was the one period in my life when I was not faking it, where I was not deflecting every emotion with repartee. That it would take millions of cancer cells lining up for their big Esther Williams finale in my lymphatic system for me to finally shut up is sobering. Or would be, were I to think about, which of course I choose not to.

What remains of your past if you didn't allow yourself to feel it when it happened? If you don't have your experiences in the moment, if you gloss them over with jokes or zoom past them, you end up with curiously dispassionate memories, procedural and de-populated. It's as if a neutron bomb went off and all you're left with are hospital corridors where you're scanning the walls for familiar photographs. Sometimes in the absence of emotion, your only recourse is to surround yourself with objects, assemble the relics about you, as I am doing in flying to Toronto to commune with my little Eskimo Pie children. For the moment, this physical evidence will have to serve as proof that the illness was real, because even now, I only half-believe what I'm telling you.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff in New York. Coming up, little pinko houses for you and me. Soviets move into Capitalist neighborhoods in America. And more in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Exile On Main Street.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, What Remains, stories in which people return to a scene of big, dramatic change years after the fact. We have arrived at act two of our program.

Act Two, Exiles on Main Street. What remains of the Cold War now, years later? Keith Gessen's family were Soviet Jews, who emigrated from Moscow in 1981 when Keith was six. They eventually moved to the well-off suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, where Keith learned to revere certain heroes of the Cold War, heroes who included people just down the street.

Keith Gessen

Our house in Newton looked like all the other houses, which in turn looked like ours. But in fact, our home was an enclave of Moscow culture. Our best loved writers were those who had stood up to Stalin and died for it. The only framed photo in the entire house was of me at 12 with a kindly old man who everyone assumed was my grandfather, but who was, in fact, Andrei Sakharov, the inventor of the Soviet hydrogen bomb who later became a dissident and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

And then there was the soundtrack to my childhood. I put in my hours of rap music and The Doors. But when my parents controlled the tape deck, we listened to Alexander Galich, a Soviet dissident who sang with great pathos of labor camps, executioners, and exiles.

[MUSIC BY ALEXANDER GALICH]

These words were playing in cars and homes all across the suburbs of the Northeast states, where the Soviet dissidents landed in the '70s. Even now, after the Soviet Union has collapsed and they could go home, many of the most prominent former dissidents live in places like Revere, Massachusetts, Aberdeen, New Jersey, and Ithaca, New York. It never made sense to me. A whole heroic generation of Russians had gone from a place of drama and conviction to these dull, groomed streets. And I decided at long last to figure out why.

Pavel Litvinov

My name is Pavel Litvinov. I'm a physics teacher in Hackley School. And we are standing in my lab. It's a physics lab. That's where I teach and spend several hours every day, five days a week.

Keith Gessen

The Hackley School is a prep school on a pretty, hillside campus in Tarrytown, New York. But Litvinov's story of being a humdrum physics teacher won't fly with me. I know who he is.

Pavel Litvinov

Well, we see our football field, but they actually play lacrosse because it's lacrosse season.

Keith Gessen

This is the Litvinov who, when Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia in August, 1968, led the most famous Soviet protest of the Cold War era, a protest of eight people in Red Square who were quickly beaten up, arrested, and packed off to Siberia, labor camps, and a psychiatric institution. A few nights before going out into Red Square, Litvinov attended a get together where Alexander Galich himself, the singer so popular in my family's Cutlass Sierra, performed a new song about resisting authority, whose most ringing phrase was a call to arms. "Will you dare go out into the square at the appointed hour?" Well, Litvinov dared. He spent four years in Siberia and was forced out of the Soviet Union in 1974.

Pavel Litvinov

For many people, it's just very strange that I was ready to risk my freedom and maybe even life. It's definitely different. And they look at me, a middle-aged man and so on. And I don't look like the one who would do such things. And they would be very much amazed.

Keith Gessen

It's not as if Litvinov stopped his political activity when he arrived in the states. Until the Soviet Union collapsed, he gave speeches, published a chronicle of Soviet human rights abuses, and served on the board of Amnesty International. But in America, politics were merely politics, not a way of being.

Pavel Litvinov

Galich himself came to United States after immigration years ago after that. And we had a concert for him. A small concert, maybe about 40 people in some place across the river in Nyack. And he started to sing his songs. And in America, it didn't make much sense. It still was great poetry, great songs. But somehow, it didn't sound, and even Galich didn't sound the same. I remember listening to him in Moscow apartments when he was singing for dissidents, when the feeling of danger, feeling that tomorrow somebody can be arrested, some people were in prison, some people in labor camp, in mental hospital for their dissident activity. Everything was so sharp and so painful that Galich's songs were just a very subtle, very desperate thing.

Keith Gessen

He tells me that he doesn't regret coming here, that the achievements he's proud of these days are his successes with his students. Litvinov see nothing incongruous about Soviet dissidents settling in the American suburbs.

Pavel Litvinov

That's what is great about America, because everyone in America is something, has some experience. You go and you find out that on the next street, there could be mobsters, there could be Soviet dissidents, there could be some character or some guy who made $20 million because he invented some software. And that's what is incredible in the United States.

Keith Gessen

And yet his old friends in Russia are still on the front lines. Sergei Kovalev was Yeltsin's human rights commissioner and a longtime deputy in the Duma. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] is an important human rights activist.

And I cannot rid myself of the notion that there is another life that Litvinov might have lived, a heroic life in which he stayed in Russia. I ask him about it, about whether he ever thinks about that life. And finally, he tells me that of course he's thought about it. It would have meant going to a labor camp instead of coming here. And if he had come out alive, he tells me, well, then yes, he likely would have become a politician or activist after the regime collapsed.

He's very polite as he says this. If he had survived. Because millions died in those camps. And it dawns on me, more powerfully than it ever has, that in asking him if he feels out of place here, I'm asking if he might not rather be dead. By the time the Soviet Union did collapse and there was nothing preventing him from moving back, he felt it was too late.

Pavel Litvinov

I already became very American. My life is here.

Keith Gessen

At your trial, you were talking about the attitude of the authorities to the people. And you said, "this is what I have fought against and what I shall continue to fight against for the rest of my life." Could you have imagined then this future that you've had?

Pavel Litvinov

About continue it the rest of my life, I still believe in those things. I still, when I can, contribute whatever little I can contribute to that. I do it. But it's a different life. And you change with age. When I left Russia, I was 33 and now I am almost 60. So the changes are there. So I'm a different person. I still feel a lot of connection, but I know that I am American.

In 1993, Yeltsin decided to bomb the first Russian parliament. I was so disgusted with that. And I wrote a letter which was published in several Russian newspapers. And most of my friends disagreed with me. And my very close friends started polemics against me, which I didn't mind. But basically, part of the message was-- which I minded-- that I don't live there, I don't understand life there. And from America, I have no right to say it. That was the implication, that I'm a foreigner. And I suddenly realized that they probably are right. And that was a good cure from any thoughts about returning.

Matvei Yankelevich

We're standing in front of 54 Maplewood Avenue in Newton, Massachusetts.

Keith Gessen

If anyone should have a reasonable perspective on dissidents in the suburbs, it would be my old friend Matvei, who is dissident royalty. The kindly old Sakharov in the framed photo atop our stereo wasn't my grandfather, but he was Matvei's. And for most of Matvei's childhood, he was exiled in Gorky. Matvei's family lived near us-- cross Rt. 9 on Parker, take a right and another right-- and we had Russian and chess lessons together as part of a parental rear-guard action against our creeping Americanization. His parents listened to Galich too.

More importantly, his father was Sakharov's spokesman in the West. So they always had reporters and camera crews swarming the house.

Matvei Yankelevich

I think that a lot of the neighbors were very suspicious of us. And because my dad was so busy, he didn't have time to rake the lawn or mow the grass sometimes. And people would complain and say that our house was-- that we weren't being respectful to our Newton neighbors because we weren't cleaning up.

Keith Gessen

But it lowers the property value if you don't mow your lawn.

Matvei Yankelevich

Right. Exactly. We were committing a Capitalist sin.

Keith Gessen

I tell Matvei that as a child, I found it hard to have an American life at school and a Russian life at home. But maybe he felt different because his parents were on a mission from God.

Matvei Yankelevich

I didn't see myself as different from the other immigrant kids just because my parents were involved in this. It just meant that they would go away for a month to Europe or something. And I would be like, well, where are my parents? And they'd be touring Europe and talking to Mitterrand and I don't know, all sorts of weird people out there.

Keith Gessen

Did you ever get called a Commie?

Matvei Yankelevich

Yeah, I remember being called something like-- my teachers in junior high would say things like, where are you "Russian" to? Mr. Roberts. Or Matvei, you look so Red today.

Keith Gessen

Like most kids, Matvei didn't think his family was so special until Sakharov died in 1989, when Matvei was 16, and they went to Moscow for the funeral. 50,000 people came out to mourn his grandfather.

Matvei Yankelevich

And I think that was a turning point when I realized what I had missed, what I had not been old enough to really understand. It was just an incredible physical experience, in the sense that the space of Moscow was completely flooded by people following the coffin. And I remember just walking for miles behind, and sort of in a daze because I was thinking about all these things.

Keith Gessen

But it was not so much of a turning point that Matvei decided to devote his life to politics. I think Matvei learned something different from his parents' dissident lives than they probably ever intended. He has a dissident's relationship to the world but without the politics. He simply doesn't fit into society, and he doesn't seem distressed about it at all. He lives in a part of Brooklyn that's only barely connected to public transport. He does not have a job. He does various projects of his own invention. His latest is a biweekly 'zine on theatre theory.

Meanwhile, his family wants him to settle down to more traditional work and move closer to the trains. His grandmother, Yelena Bonner, who has been one of the Russian government's most acerbic critics, is also very critical of Matvei, especially since he dropped out of a doctoral program at Yale.

Matvei Yankelevich

She has often told me that she is going to die if I don't get a PhD.

Keith Gessen

What Matvei's family wants for him is the kind of life they had to forfeit. Political work took an enormous toll on his parents.

Matvei Yankelevich

It was a completely marginal way of life. It meant just forgetting about a career and forgetting about a normal, decent human life. It just meant constantly running or constantly fighting something.

Keith Gessen

For Matvei, there isn't very much glamour associated with dissidents. And so he doesn't find it so strange that they would live in the suburbs.

Matvei Yankelevich

Well, maybe they got what they wanted. I don't feel like there's anything so shameful in that.

Keith Gessen

Yeah, for me, just having the dissidents be something that were talked about in the house. And I probably have a more mythic view of them than you do. And maybe that's why I want to be so critical of them.

Matvei Yankelevich

Yeah, I don't know. I feel like it's hard for me to romanticize the dissidents because we never talked about "the dissidents" in my house. We talked about my grandpa and my grandma. And that was very different. And it was not really about their political choices but about survival.

Alexander Gessen

My name is Alexander Gessen and I am your father.

Keith Gessen

My father was not a dissident, but he brought all of us here from Russia and he raised me to admire them. He now lives in a big house near the ocean on Cape Cod. And he thinks it's ridiculous that I'm asking why the dissidents haven't returned.

Alexander Gessen

They built their lives here. And do you want them to just extricate themselves and go back to nothing? It's very difficult.

Keith Gessen

If I feel this way, it's largely because you have instilled these ideas into me.

Alexander Gessen

You feel what? Tell me what you feel. What are you talking about right now?

Keith Gessen

Well, largely my idea of the moral life comes from listening to Galich, from listening to stories about political heroism and moral heroism. But meanwhile, we were in the suburbs. Does that makes sense to you as a contradiction?

Alexander Gessen

A contradiction between our lifestyle and our admirations? No, I don't think that everybody has to be a hero. Of course, if you are saying that you would prefer to have a father a hero, a dissident instead of just a suburban father, I could understand that.

Keith Gessen

Well, I wasn't-- but the dissidents are also in the suburbs. So it would be the same situation, really.

Alexander Gessen

You mean, these people are not heroic enough, that they stopped being heroes? This is what you are complaining about, yeah? Probably they did their part and they feel that they did enough. This is why they are staying here. They did their parts. They cannot do much now and they don't have to do anything now.

Keith Gessen

Of course my father's right. But somehow there's a part of me that feels the dissidents shouldn't be here. I think it's because, as a kid in the suburbs, I thought that history is what happened to other people, to people in Moscow and Paris and New York and Woodstock. They were out there doing these important things, and we were here, comfortable on Woodcliff Road, not doing much of anything at all.

The suburbs are about sitting out history and about private lives. And the dissidents certainly have a right to all that. But when they were in Russia, they proved that it matters too what you do in public, that it is not enough to be moral behind the walls of your castle. They still believe that, of course, as I believe it, fiercely, from my comfortable, American home.

Ira Glass

Keith Gessen in Massachusetts. He first wrote about dissidents in the suburbs for feedmagazine.com.

Act Three. Shopping for a Better Future.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Shopping for a Better Future. What's left of an old neighborhood when a new one starts to form on top of it, when lots of money floods in but the old residents stick around? This American Life producer Julie Snyder has this story.

Julie Snyder

It says something that one of the most profound social experiments in Chicago is happening inside a supermarket. And while the executives of Dominick's Finer Foods wouldn't call it an experiment, there's really no other way to see it. For years, leaders from Jesse Jackson to Ronald Reagan have argued that if businesses would just locate in poorer areas, entire communities could change. This is a story of a corporation that tried to follow that model.

Justin Thomas

See, this used to be, like, a predominantly black neighborhood. And up until maybe two years ago, it just like changed overnight. Overnight.

Julie Snyder

Justin Thomas has lived in the Cabrini-Green housing projects on and off for the last 30 years, and works in the new store Dominick's built across the street. A thoughtful man who treats everyone like he's their older brother, he tells me that his job in the store cafe is to basically "do everything the females can't," which basically means a lot of heavy lifting and cleaning.

Justin Thomas

There was a lot of crazy stuff happening over here. A few years ago, you could barely rest for shooting and gangs and stuff. And they started tearing down some of the buildings in the projects. And when the neighborhood, the community could have been in a real crisis, up pops this store.

Julie Snyder

Two years ago, the Chicago city government began a massive revitalization of the Cabrini-Green area. They gave economic incentives to Dominick's to move in. Old buildings came down. A new library went up. A park opened. And acres were cleared to build three-story townhomes where trashed-out cars and crack houses once stood. The whole neighborhood began to look different, people living in the projects next door to yuppies in the new condos and lofts. One afternoon, Justin and I go out to the parking lot in front of the supermarket.

Justin Thomas

Over there to the right was a basketball court. Right there where the Blockbuster is. I think it may be extended from the Blockbuster maybe to right here.

Julie Snyder

Like, to maybe where this BMW is right here?

Justin Thomas

Yeah. It was like a haven, really, for people that get high.

Julie Snyder

Of the 6,000 people who live in the projects, 93% are unemployed. And when Dominick's cut their deal with the city, they agreed to hire 2/3 of their workforce from the neighborhood.

Dwayne Howard

It's one thing to set out to do something like this, and you get all of the warm and fuzzies and everything looks good. And then you get the store up and running, and then it falls apart.

Julie Snyder

Dwayne Howard is the head of human resources at Dominick's. An African American man in his 40s, he first started coming to Cabrini-Green a decade ago. For years, he was here every week as part of the Cabrini-Green tutoring program and thought he knew a little bit about the neighborhood. But even he was surprised at how unprepared some people were for regular work. 35-year-old men were applying who'd never held any jobs ever.

Dwayne Howard

There's no other way to put it other than you need to be sensitive to what has been a way of life for some of the employees that are working in the store, having been a product of their upbringing in the Cabrini-Green housing project.

Julie Snyder

The city paid for a two-week course where applicants were taught not to wear jeans to their interviews, to bring their own pens to fill out applications, to not argue with customers, to come to work on time. In short, Dominick's ran into exactly the same problems that any government agency or charity slams up against when it tries to move people off welfare and into jobs.

The Cabrini store manager told me that even now, some employees won't come in for days. And when they do finally show up, they're shocked to find out they've been fired. A few months back, two step-sisters, one working the register and the other bagging groceries, had an argument brewing their entire shift, ending with punches being thrown right there at the checkout line.

Most of the early hires didn't work out. One manager who'd been at 14 stores over 25 years said he'd never seen a turnover rate so high. Store execs won't say how many of the original staff of 250 are still with Dominick's, but they admit it may be as low as 1/4. And every employee they let go, they have to find and hire another from the neighborhood.

None of this gives you a sense of the atmosphere in the store, which in a way is the most remarkable thing about the entire experiment. When I first walked into the Dominick's about six months ago, a store employee, a small woman in her 70s, greeted me at the door, handed me a shopping basket, and told me to let her know if there was anything she could help me find.

In the aisles, customers were chatting with each other. Teens from Cabrini hang out by the pizza slice counter. Elderly men drink coffee and read the paper in the store cafe. At the checkout line, the cashier was telling a joke, a slightly racy one even, to the customer in front of me. It didn't seem like they knew each other, but they were both laughing. She was maybe 20, African-American. He was a balding white guy.

I thought maybe this was some sort of special day at Dominick's, like maybe the employees were being evaluated or it was the store's anniversary. But almost every time I've gone back, the same types of things happen. If you ask an employee where something is, they don't just point in a general direction and leave. They actually drop what they're doing and take you over to the product. There's a man who works in the liquor department who has stopped my husband in the store, taken his bottle of wine out of the cart, and replaced it with a cheaper and better version.

People seem genuinely happy to have these jobs and to have the first decent store they've ever had in this neighborhood. It's also one of the most comfortably integrated environments in Chicago. The diversity of the stock is almost a laughably obvious metaphor for the diversity of the customers. Collard greens sit next to arugula. Smoked ham hocks and turkey tails literally lay right next to gourmet smoked sausage with sun-dried tomato, basil, and pine nuts.

Dan Underwood

I like the store. It's OK. I don't think that they really built that store for us.

Julie Snyder

Who do you think they built it for?

Dan Underwood

Oh, for the people moving in. The middle class people with more money than we have.

Julie Snyder

Dan Underwood has lived in the area all of his life, before the housing projects were even built. He headed the grammar school's champion drill team and runs a community gardening project called Cabrini Greens where kids grow vegetables and sell them at a profit.

When I ask him what remains of the old neighborhood now that it has a new shopping center, he tells me, pretty much everything-- gangs, drugs, and poor people. Standing in between three of the high-rises, it's clear the benefits of redevelopment don't extend much further than the plot of land Dominick's sits on.

Dan Underwood

See now, do you see the police car sitting out front right here?

Julie Snyder

He points at a squad car and one woman yelling down from the fifth floor to a woman in the parking lot who ignores her and strides away.

Dan Underwood

Oh, those people. They're arguing about drugs. They're arguing about drugs. But the guys will be standing right down there selling drugs now. When the police come, they're all going out of there.

Julie Snyder

How often do the police come by?

Dan Underwood

Oh, God. A lot. They're here all the time. They never leave. They never leave.

Julie Snyder

Dan says what everyone at Cabrini says, that it's just a matter of time before the city tears down the high-rises and sends them all packing. People said this to me months ago, and it wasn't clear if it was paranoia. And then recently, they were proven right in every detail.

The housing authority has announced a plan to demolish the Cabrini high-rises and build a mixed-income community in its place. It's still not entirely clear how it will shake out, but the most likely scenario is this-- some people will be allowed to stay in the neighborhood in new and improved public housing, and the rest-- probably most people-- will be moved to poor neighborhoods, God knows where, or abandoned.

Dan Underwood

Things change so much. When I was a little boy, eight, nine years old, those projects were not there. The rural houses, do you know where they are? On the other side of Oak Street, that was Italian. The Italians lived there. And black kids couldn't walk over there. You got in a fight. Italian gangs were there. And you walked over there, you got in a fight.

The only time that you were allowed to come over there was on Babaluci Day, which was when they had the carnivals and stuff. You could go there. They'd let you come during Babaluci Day. And you could come to ride on the Ferris Wheel and all that kind of stuff. And the Cardinal would come and he had his float. And it was peaceful then, that day. After that, the next day, you couldn't go over there. You couldn't go over there.

Julie Snyder

So in a way, right now, this time period is sort of like Babaluci Day. You can come in.

Dan Underwood

You can come in. You can come in and you can come to the Dominick's. But this is not for you. You have to go.

Julie Snyder

Everyone assumes the few people who will be allowed to stay in the area and live in the nice, new public housing will be the best bets, people who are off public aid, people with jobs. With this in mind, Justin, who's only worked in the store for four months, has made it his own personal project to informally recruit people for jobs at Dominick's. He talks it up at his Baptist Church. He encourages his kid's friends. When people find out he works at Dominick's, he helps to set them up with interviews.

Justin Thomas

I mean, in a few years from now, if you're not in the workplace, where are you going to be? The way the neighborhood is changing, where are you going to be? You definitely can't live over here and sell drugs. That's going to be a thing of the past. So what do you do? So it's kind of like shaping up for those people that will and for those that won't. I don't know. I mean, God help them. I don't know where they'll be years from now.

Julie Snyder

At this point, the results of this social experiment are as follows-- a few hundred people have gotten and held on to jobs, some in ways that have changed their lives. And 6,000 Cabrini residents will mostly feel the experiment's effects on the day they're told to move out.

Ira Glass

Julie Snyder. To visit the most interesting supermarket in America, it's Division and Sedgwick here in Chicago.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program produced today by Julie and myself with Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton, and Blue Chevigny.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who kills every tender moment between us by saying--

David Rakoff

Mm-yesss?

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.