Transcript

162:

Moving
Transcript

Originally aired 06.23.2000

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/162

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Ben has been a construction worker, a public high school teacher, a bike messenger, a laborer, but he says the best job he ever had was as a mover. This was in New York. Part of it, he says, was that the actual work with so straightforward. Part of it was that every day he was entering all these other people's lives, and he never knew where he would end up. It was so personal somehow, especially when the people hired movers to pack everything for them.

Ben Schrank

I mean, you were coming in at a special kind of time for people where they were pretty tense. And you got to see a lot very fast. You know, 9 o'clock in the morning you're bringing all these pads, and boxes, and straps, and everything into somebody's house as quickly as possible and taking a very quick look around their life. You get a very good idea very quickly of who they are.

Ira Glass

It's like being a spy.

Ben Schrank

It felt a lot like being a spy, yeah.

Ira Glass

When you're moving people all the time, is the thing that occurs to you how similar people's lives are or how different most of our lives are?

Ben Schrank

Well most things that people move are pretty much the same. Everybody has a bed. Or at least in this part of the country everybody has a bed, and some books, and a lot of kitchenware, and generally a couch, and a few other things. Everyone tends to have a stereo. Everyone tends to have a television. And then somebody will stand out for one reason or another. They'll have a lot of music, like a lot CDs, or they'll have a collection of wines or something that we'll have to be real careful with. But there's not that much of a difference.

Ira Glass

It's like what it reminds me of is you know when you're reading in People, or US Magazine, or any magazine, like any setting where you see inside the living rooms of the super rich and super famous. And I feel like usually when I see that I just think like that's it? Like that's what they've got? There's a coffee table, and a couple of chairs, and a couch, and a lamp. Like that's the best you can do? Like that's it?

Ben Schrank

But yeah, you'd be moving a couch. And it was sometimes, again, very rich people. And there's only so many configurations for things like couches.

Ira Glass

One of the moments that was always kind of interesting, he says, was when people's stuff was all loaded into the truck, everything they had accumulated in this world stuffed into this tiny space. It's a humbling thing for a person.

Ben Schrank

It's a humbling thing. And they would get very upset often. And they would be very unsettled by that. And I could sort of understand that. Because, in a sense, everything that you'd worked for and sort of decided defined you was now sitting in this truck.

And generally if they were around, they'd look at us and the foremen would say, all right, we're going to go get lunch now because usually it would be in the middle of the day. But they would be staring at the truck. And you'd say, yeah, we're going to go get lunch, and we'll see you in Riverdale, or we'll see you on 89th Street, or whatever. And you'd look at them and they'd pause. Sometimes they'd be cool about it. But sometimes they wouldn't. They'd be like, but you will come there, won't you?

Ira Glass

They would say those words?

Ben Schrank

Oh sure. People said that all the time. Or they'd say, can I ride with you, or where are you going to have lunch, or do you have to have lunch?

Ira Glass

From their point of view, what's making them linger at the truck? Like what is it?

Ben Schrank

It is the anchor of home. Even for those few hours, especially for middle class people who have always lived somewhere or had a home, you're suddenly sort of rudderless. And I've seen a lot of that where people are just sort of standing around and they don't know what to do with themselves.

Ira Glass

We come into this world with nothing. We leave it with nothing. And on moving day we have nothing. It's an oddly naked moment, that day on which we make a transition from our old life and our old location to our new life and our new place, which is just one reason why everybody hates to move. Its freaky. It's freaky to go to something new. It's freaky to leave any place where you've been for a while. And the act of moving itself, it's a hardship.

Today on our program, we bring you three stories of people who did not want to move at all, but circumstance forced their hands. In Act One, an act that we call, Sleeping in Mommy and Daddy's Room, a family finds a way to move without moving by simply moving back into the house where the wife in the family grew up. In Act Two, Deal of a Lifetime, a woman buys a house from a man who simply does not move out ever. In Act Three, To a De-luxe Apartment in the Sky, a man makes a move, but it takes him eight years to do it.

Stick around. You're listening to This American Life from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One. Sleeping In Mommy And Daddy's Room.

Ira Glass

Act One, Sleeping in Mommy and Daddy's Room. This is the story of people wanting to change and not wanting to change at all at the same time, of a house that gets built and a house that gets moved all in pursuit of not making a new home at all. Susan Burton tells the story.

Susan Burton

I went to Wayzata, Minnesota to meet Mimi Bendickson and watch three men move her childhood home. Wayzata is just west of Minneapolis. It's a wealthy suburb, hedges and horse stables. And as I drive over to Mimi's, I have a hard time imagining that any of the houses I'm passing could be uprooted. They're sewn into groomed lawns, penned in by giant trees.

So I'm startled when I near the top of the hill and see an enormous pink brick house in the middle of a pasture, clearly on its way somewhere. And though it's suspended 12 feet above the ground jacked up on wheels, there are still flowers in the fixtures next to the front door.

Mimi Bendickson

I mean it's a really strange sensation to see a house being supported like this.

Susan Burton

This is Mimi.

Mimi Bendickson

I mean, it looks fragile in a way to be up in the air. To me, because the house has personality, it looks kind of lonely and confused. It's not where it should be. I keep adding personality to it, and thinking it must just wonder what in the world are you guys doing to me. But in the long run it will be thankful I hope.

Susan Burton

It's early in the day, just past 9:00, and Mimi's carrying a bakery box tied with red ribbon. The movers take a break, eat a doughnut, and the house looming over us, I chat with Larry, the head of the crew.

Larry Stubbs

We're 40 feet wide. The main part of the house is 60 feet long, and then on one end has a sunroom that extends another 15 feet. And on the back end, a mud room so-called, and that sticks out 24 feet.

Susan Burton

And how much does the house weigh?

Larry Stubbs

We weighed 240 tons here.

Susan Burton

This house is massive by moving standards. Most houses weight only 100, maybe 130 tons, Larry tells me.

The movers finish up breakfast, slip the doughnut box onto a steel beam underneath the front steps, and as their winches begin to whir, Mimi tells me the history of the house, which is stranger than you might think.

Mimi's parents first built this house in Southern Illinois. They lived there for several years, and then her father was transferred to Minneapolis. The family bought some land in Wayzata and decided to replicate the Illinois house exactly.

Mimi Bendickson

It's amazing. There's the same wallpaper in my bedroom, same wallpaper in the kitchen. Everything was the same-- the colors, the carpeting, the paint. It may sound really silly, but we'd only had the house for five years, and we'd loved it so much. And so our neighbors from Illinois would come visit us. They said it was just the oddest thing because you felt like you could walk out the door and walk home. It was identical. So it really was like walking into the same home.

Adrienne

The same crew moved us into this house. And they stood at the front door and said, you've got to be kidding.

Susan Burton

This is Mimi's mother, Adrienne.

Adrienne

OK guys, that bedroom goes up on the right, that goes in the living room over here. They knew the house, and it was identical. And luckily we were able to reproduce everything, the wallpaper, the drapes, the carpeting, just about everything.

Susan Burton

And they lived happily ever after, for 25 years anyway, until certain small things began to bother them, little things about certain rooms. It's as if the house they were living in began to coexist in their minds with the second house, an imaginary house that was just slightly more perfect than the one they actually inhabited. And at some point, they decided they wanted to live in that other house. Here's Truck, Mimi's father.

Truck

And we really said to the architect, we've lived in the family room for two houses, I suppose a total of 30 years. And if this family room was just a few inches, or feet, or something different, or the fireplace would settle a bit left, or right, or something like that it would be perfect.

Susan Burton

But they found it would be more expensive to renovate than to tear the house down and build another brand new. What to do? The thought of bulldozing the house was so upsetting that they could hardly talk about it. Mimi's mother, Adrienne.

Adrienne

Mimi had the fourth grandchild. Mimi and Mark had the fourth grandchild. And all the others had had a really neat experience, we think, with us in that house on that location. And I really felt badly that Adie would never have an opportunity to know that house like everybody else. And this gave us an opportunity to have her know the house too. Isn't this silly? You don't think of how much is in your home until you lose it.

Susan Burton

Then Mimi's husband suggested that the family move the house, that he, and Mimi, and their children could live in it. Since the structure was too big to take onto county roads, they would tug it onto an empty field elsewhere on the property, just a five-minute walk away from the original site, the site on which Mimi's parents will rebuild their old house, with subtle changes, this fall.

What about a house could mean so much to a family, mean so much that they'd build it three times, scoop it out of the ground, prop it on trailers, drag it through the pasture, carry it with them wherever they go? Architecturally, there isn't anything extraordinary about the house. Adrienne and Truck found the floor plan in a magazine. It's a pretty two-story with four bedrooms, a little formal looking. If, in the 1970s, you spent any time in a country club suburb, you drove your station wagon past a lot of houses like this. Adrienne offers one explanation for her attachment to the house.

Adrienne

I don't like to change. And I'm tedious to the point of-- anyway, I'm tedious. But when we come to a conclusion on something we are so married to that idea, and then we don't want to revisit it again. So yeah, people thought we were strange because lots of friends of ours have the ability and the inclination to completely redecorate, and re-carpet, and do all these things about every ten years. We don't feel the need to do that. And I don't know if it's laziness. I think it's we are really happy with what we have.

Susan Burton

And at some level, the reason this family keeps remaking the same house is as simple as they're happy together in that home. They have fun there. This is not a family for whom Sunday dinner together is an obligation. They like being together. And they like being together around their house. When I suggest to Mimi that for many people, moving back into a childhood home might be painful, bittersweet, it's almost like she doesn't understand what I mean. Well, maybe if someone had died there, she says.

And there's one more reason why the house means so much. In the movie of this family's life, in the scene where the dying man says, Rosebud, the name Mimi's family would say is

Mimi Bendickson

Highcroft.

Man 1

Highcroft.

Man 2

Highcroft.

Adrienne

Highcroft.

Man 3

Highcroft.

Man 4

Highcroft.

Susan Burton

Truck's ancestors include some old money Minnesotans who owned a historic home called well, Highcroft, a 40,000 square foot mansion on Lake Minnetonka. Truck pages through a green leather album showing me photographs. The house had its own power plant, a commercial laundry on the first floor. It was torn down in the 1950s, the land sold off and divided up into separate plots just four miles from where the family lives now.

Everyone makes sure that I know about Highcroft, brings it up early in the conversation. The family clearly feels the story explains something about them.

Truck

Anyway, the last night in early January, 1952, Granddad was leaving for the train station. And the staff of Highcroft, and there was this enormous big house had generally more than one butler, and more than one cook, and upstairs maids, and downstairs maids, and a manager of the house, and everybody else, the chauffeur, they lined up to say goodbye to Granddad. And I will never ever forget how broken up I was to watch this old man who was about 85 years old say goodbye to what was his history.

Mimi Bendickson

You grow up hearing your family's stories--

Susan Burton

This is Mimi again.

Mimi Bendickson

--and they're all passed on. Stories take on a life of their own. There's always been these stories. And it probably makes this Highcroft house even grander than it was. Who knows? I mean, I don't know. But I think it was kind of weird that they didn't think of a way to save it. So maybe that's like a little voice in the back of my head, that it's pretty hard to lose something because it's gone forever.

Susan Burton

There was a choice about Highcroft, and the family believes it chose wrong. And this seems to be more painful than the absence itself. And what they fear is forgetting. Mimi tells me that once something is gone it's hard to remember it again, that already it's hard to imagine the big pink brick house on its old site. And building the same thing every time is a way of guarding against forgetting. It's almost as if the family thinks that if they live their lives in different rooms all of their memories would disappear.

Adrienne

There's not one single aspect of that house that is that important to me, but it's what happened in that house, which is why we have built it twice, I think. It works well, yes, but it's the things that happened there, the milestones in our lives, the preparations for two weddings, the children being born, the baptism luncheons, the Easter, the Christmases. Those are the things that really, if we were in a different house altogether, that would all be lost.

Susan Burton

Why shouldn't you be able to hold onto what happens inside a room? Mimi's family simply takes to an extreme a feeling a lot of people have about homes they've lived in and moved away from. A house can inspire a kind of longing. But you can love a house maybe too much, which was something Mimi had to think about. Because she was essentially asking her husband, Mark, to move into her childhood home from his childhood home, which is where they live now.

Mimi and I drive out to Maple Plain. It's only 15 minutes from Wayzata, but more rural and more working class, low-slung warehouses, a beer distributor, a sign that says, chainsaw sale on now. We pass Mark's parents house-- the one he actually grew up in-- take a left and we're at Mark and Mimi's house, high on a bluff, looking around at miles of pretty plains and wetlands.

From here we can see where Mark's sister lives. She and the rest of his family helped him move this house here, put down the driveway, plant the grass. Mark's so easygoing that if he's upset about leaving this world he's put so much effort into constructing there's no way to tell.

Mark

Mimi was very open-minded to move out here with me away from civilization, and to move into my home that had my look to it.

Susan Burton

And history to it.

Mark

Well, and now I mean the least I can do is cheerfully follow her to our next step.

Susan Burton

This is as much as I can ever get Mark to say about the move. As the three of us talk he seems reluctant to bring up anything that might upset anyone. He says he's looking forward to being in a better school district, closer to restaurants, to setting up his music studio, but Mimi notices something he's leaving out.

Mimi Bendickson

You've never once mentioned the house, like how you feel about the house itself. I've never even asked you that. Uh oh. We're going to have to put the house up for sale. But I mean how you feel about the house, not just moving?

Mark

I love it. I don't think that's an issue. I like this house where we are now. This other one is better.

Susan Burton

This isn't the answer Mimi's looking for. And they go around on this until finally Mimi points out that Mark would've been happy to stay in their current house.

Mimi Bendickson

And this has sort of always been a touchy issue. But this was never my house for my life. And I always was looking to the next step. And moving here was always, to me, coming into your world for a lot of reasons. This is where Mark had his single life. This is where Mark dated other people. This is where his whole family was involved. This has always been our house, but it's Mark's house.

I'm kind of making it seem like it's black and white. And I will be really sad to leave here too. But I'm so excited for the other. And I've always been dreaming about the next step where Mark saw his dreams for this place. And so that's hard. I mean he's got paths that he made for the kids to walk in. Well that's hard to give up.

Susan Burton

Mimi starts to cry. And I turn off the tape recorder. And she looks out the window and says, it's hard to see somebody's dreams not be able to happen.

There are two parts to a move, what you take with you and what you leave behind. And the hardest thing for Mark isn't coming into Mimi's world, it's what he's giving up.

It's hard to imagine moving an entire house, and not many people do it. There aren't firm figures, but by one estimate, 10,000 structures of all kinds are moved each year. The guy moving Mimi's house, Larry Stubbs of Stubbs Building Movers, recently made the Guinness Book of World Records when he moved the Shubert Theatre in Minneapolis.

To move Mimi's childhood home, Larry started by digging a moat around the house, inserted jacks at the edges of the building, cracked it off its foundation, pumped it up into the air. Then he stuck a complicated network of support beams and wheeled dollies underneath. It took less than a week to pull the house close to its new site. Then Mark and his father got in excavators and dug a big hole, graded an incline down into it. The house gets rolled into the hole. A foundation is built under it. The support system is taken away.

As they pull the house into the hole, you can see the wheels turning under it. But its progress is so incremental, so graceful, that you can't actually perceive the move unless you go away for an hour and return, as Mimi and I do, to see the house turned at an angle rounding a bend, the doughnut box from this morning still sitting upon a beam

Mimi gets out her cell phone and calls friends and family, tells them to come over. It looks like today's the day Larry's going to finish, fix the house in its final spot. I climb up in a truck cab with a mover named Dave, who's winching a cable attached to the house around a giant spool.

Radio Voice

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE], Dave.

Dave

All right, did you hear what he said?

Susan Burton

What did he say?

Dave

Go easy on that one.

Radio Voice

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE].

Dave

We might be done. That might be it here.

Susan Burton

What makes you think that?

Dave

Well we're both letting our cables down. So let's go find out.

Susan Burton

And all of a sudden it's in place, and we're not on a job site zigzagged by bulldozer tracks but in a front yard. Mimi's mother, Adrienne, arrives and stands before the house, right where the circular driveway will be, holding her granddaughter, Adie.

Adrienne

It's just a little emotional. It's all of a sudden not our house anymore. Now it's this generation's house, and it's wonderful. Yeah. This is not Grandpa's house anymore or Grandma's house. This is your house. It's in a new spot. Yes.

Mimi Bendickson

Here we walk in and it's kind of a mess. And aqua from 20 years ago. But this is the kitchen.

Susan Burton

Mimi and I climb up a ladder and through a hole poked into the floor of the mud room. I feel as if we're entering an exhibit, something mounted, a museum piece.

The interior of the house is so vintage 70s that it's a little spooky. I half expect one of the girls from the movie The Virgin Suicides to lean over the banister in a gauzy prom dress. We stand in the wood paneled family room talking about Mimi's plans to redecorate and her memories of the place.

Mimi Bendickson

This is the room where the picture was taken when Mark proposed to me. We came over and woke my mom up and took pictures in here. It was like 1:00 in the morning. But this is the room that, for me, has caused the most agonizing over how to make it special and us in a new feel but not too different.

Susan Burton

To Mimi, this is the central tension of the project. She's trying to preserve something, but change it at the same time. We finish the tour of the first floor and head upstairs.

Susan Burton

You know when you walk up the stairs in your house and just sort of know exactly how long it's going to take. Do you have that feeling like when you walk up the stairs?

Mimi Bendickson

Yeah, and what's funny is I always walk up and go this way because that's my old room. I never ever would take somebody to the master bedroom first because I've never done that, which I guess I hadn't thought about until now. Anyway, this is my brother and mine, this is the bathroom we shared growing up.

Susan Burton

I tried to figure out a polite way to ask Mimi, won't it be a little odd to be sleeping with your husband in your parents bedroom? When I finally do, Mimi is surprisingly unfazed by the notion. It simply doesn't bother her that much. In fact, she said, she and Mark have a four poster bed just like her parents.

Mark comes inside with Adie and Mimi takes him to see the view from the kitchen windows. It's the moment in the move when a house officially changes hands and the new owners walk around whispering, exploring. And what's amazing is that Mimi can actually have this experience in this house, given the fact that she lived here for 18 years.

She tours the rooms looking for little reassurances, that it will feel normal here, that it wasn't a mistake to move the house. And what's most comforting to Mimi is that it feels a lot like what it was.

Mimi Bendickson

It doesn't feel weird anymore. Looking out the windows, it doesn't feel odd anymore. I don't know. Doesn't it kind of look like it's the same view?

Mark

Well it's a nice view.

Mimi Bendickson

But doesn't it just feel like it did because you're facing the same direction and you're looking at the same green and the same trees in the back?

Susan Burton

Later in the evening, I sit in the yard and think about how F. Scott Fitzgerald set some of his short stories here, in the wealthy corners of Minnesota, amidst lake houses and broad lawns. The story Mimi's dad told me about his grandfather's last night at Highcroft has a plot that's pure Fitzgerald, someone riding away on a snowy night in a Pullman car taking a last look at the fine old mansion, the receding past.

In an actual Fitzgerald story, say Winter Dreams, that past would be lost forever. And at some point the protagonist, in that one a Minnesota golf caddy, would rub his eyes in a panic trying to conjure it up again, reinhabit that world, and be devastated by his inability to summon it back.

But Fitzgerald would have had to write Mimi's story as a fairy tale. She's done the thing that's impossible, packed the one thing you can't take with you. She's kept the past accessible for her whole family. They have all of the rooms, all of the years of their lives. They can literally step back into something a lot of people strain to recapture. And she's been able to do this because, unlike Fitzgerald's characters, unlike so many of us, she's never left home.

Ira Glass

Susan Burton.

Coming up, how to sell your home, make thousands and thousands of dollars, and never move out. That's right, a case study. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

[MUSIC - "YOU'D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO" BY THE AL COHN AND ZOOT SIMS QUINTET]

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different stories on that theme. Today's program, how to move without really moving, stories of people who do not want change in their lives, but then events force them to change and how they try to hold onto what they already know and love despite that.

Act Two. Deal Of A Lifetime.

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Two of our program, Act Two, Deal of a Lifetime. The typical way that it goes when somebody moves is that they move into the new house or apartment and the old occupant moves out. Sarah Koenig has this story of a situation where the new mover moved in, but at that point the process came to a dead halt.

Sarah Koenig

My stepsister, Rue, wanted a house in Sag Harbor, New York badly. But the former fishing village is now the artsiest of the tourist towns that make up the Hamptons, and she couldn't really afford it. Then one day she found out about a lovely house on Main Street listed for two prices. The more expensive listing included a house, a shed, and a little garden. The cheaper listing included a house, a shed, a little garden, and Ned.

Rue

Well, the way I identify Ned is my man. People laugh at this, but he really is mine. He's the man that came with the house.

Sarah Koenig

The deal was this. Rue moved into her dream house at $110,000 discount. The catch was Ned, an elderly, sick man who sold the house cheap on one condition, that he never have to move out. Rue lives in the upstairs apartment. Ned lives in the more spacious downstairs, where he will stay until he dies.

Rue

While Ned is working in his little downtown shop, which sells classical music CDs, Rue gives us a tour. We're coming into Ned's portion of the house, which is where he's lived for I think maybe 20 years, I'm not sure, and which is good for him too because he's older. It's all on street level. He doesn't have to climb any stairs. And also he's lost a lot of his sight, which is one reason why he really didn't want to leave this house.

Sarah Koenig

Unlike the mansions across the street, this house isn't big or fancy. It was built perhaps 100 years ago for the workers in the local watchcase factory. When she bought it, Rue was 36 and single. The idea that she could inhabit only two rooms of her new house didn't seem problematic. What she did not foresee was that in the space of a year, she would acquire a puppy, a husband and a baby.

She tries to focus on the deal's advantages. The cramped quarters have taught her to resolve fights with her husband rather than flee them, she says. And Rue, extravagantly messy in her youth, has now taken to watching Martha Stewart's TV show at 9:00 AM, and has learned helpful tips for maximizing space. Still, she can't deny that the population boom in her apartment has made Ned's downstairs look especially attractive.

Rue

And this is the living room.

Sarah Koenig

Is this where you would have the bedroom if you were down here? Would you use that as the master bedroom?

Rue

Well, actually I think I would change the whole back of the house if I were down here. As you might guess, I've had a few imaginings of what I'd like to do with the space down here, but not too many. I don't like to get carried away with myself prematurely. These are all terrible things to think of.

Sarah Koenig

Why are they terrible things to think of?

Rue

Well, I don't know. There's this vulture-like aspect of it when you start talking about what you'd like to do. I mean there's no getting around that. How can I talk about what I'd like to do? I'd never get to do it until he's moved on from this world.

Ned

Well, we are now standing in the second parlor of this house on Main Street in Sag Harbor. And I've lived here since 1985. I sold it to Rue, I think, in '95. And I never expected to be alive this long. Poor Rue.

Sarah Koenig

To Ned, who is 78, selling his house from under himself was an ingenious way to stay in a place he considers home. A pianist who made his living as an editor, Ned has spent his life getting money and then spending it all. By the time he put his house on the market he was sick and broke. He didn't have the will to move.

The Main Street house is the only one he's ever owned. It's crammed with antiques, and oriental rugs, and reminders of his elegant New Orleans upbringing. A large romantic portrait of him from 1951 hangs in the parlor. In the kitchen is a framed photograph of Stillwood, his grandmother's plantation house.

Ned

And the little silver coffee set, this set right here, a little coffee pot, a cream pitcher, and a sugar pitcher, and a tray, my mother said was from the Civil War down in New Orleans. And it's been buried in the garden to keep General Butler, Spoon Butler they called him, to keep it from him. And I said, oh mother, on the bottom of each piece in here it says 1893. And she said, well that's a stock number. In reality, my mother was not to be moved by this.

And when I took the tray to a silversmith in New York to have it redone, he said, has this tray ever been buried in the ground? Because there are all sorts of minerals in it that you only find in the ground. And I told him the story. He said, well I bet your mother was right.

Sarah Koenig

Besides the house and its occasional ailments-- a leaky skylight and overflowing garbage can-- what unites these two households is the anticipation of Ned's death. Back when they first negotiated the deal nobody thought he would still be alive today.

Rue

He had had a heart attack and he had had a history of heart disease, I don't know how long a history. He had had bypass surgery, and then right after the closing, two weeks after the closing, he had another heart attack. And I talked to him from the hospital. And he sounded quite authentically sick I have to say. And that was six years ago.

Ned

The trouble is I, all of a sudden, began to get better and was going around full of energy. And I feel perfectly good most of the time. I wake up and I embrace the day so to speak, well not the early day.

[PIANO PLAYING]

Sarah Koenig

The contract that binds Ned and Rue has led them to live together separately. They don't consider each other family or even friends. They don't invite each other over for dinner or drop by each other's apartment for a chat. When they do talk, their conversation is almost exclusively about the house. Like considerate roommates, they try not to offend each other with their habits.

Ned

I try to figure out when maybe nobody's upstairs and that's when I play. But sometimes I realize they are upstairs, but then I go ahead and play anyhow. I'm sure it must bother them. It would bother me.

I've played the piano ever since I was nine years old. And I'm very sad by the fact that I can no longer read music because I've forgotten all those pieces that I learned all those years ago. But I now can sit down and simply play what comes out. And oddly enough, sometimes what comes out is very, very nice. It's always very sad. Oh there have been moving evenings here, let me tell you, not a dry handkerchief in the house.

Sarah Koenig

In fact, Rue likes his playing. She's never told him so, but she finds it soothing when the music drifts into her bedroom when she and the baby are taking a nap. And he has never told her that he finds her presence upstairs comforting. Still there are complicated feelings on both sides.

Rue

I do like Ned and I do feel kind of benevolent towards him like I'm taking care of him sometimes. He just inspires that in people. But then I'm not going to be terribly, terribly sorry when he dies. I'm going to be sorry, but I'm also going to feel some relief. It's very strange.

Every time I ask him how are you doing or take care, I always get this little twinge. There is a twinge.

Sarah Koenig

Of?

Rue

A twinge of like how are things going or how are you doing, and just this wicked twinge comes over me because I think that I'd a little bit like to hear not so great.

Sarah Koenig

Do you think that he's keyed in to this other conversation in your head?

Rue

Well as I said, Ned's no fool.

Ned

I'm aware that the other side can't be all that thrilled that I'm still there. But she's been very nice to me. And I think I've been very nice to her I think.

Sarah Koenig

Well she obviously likes you.

Ned

Well I hope so because I like her.

Sarah Koenig

But she's also waiting for your demise.

Ned

Oh I'm sure.

Sarah Koenig

Does it make you feel guilty that you got better?

Ned

I don't think I feel guilty. Maybe I do. I'm just sorry that there is Rue sitting up there. She can't help but wait, biting her fingernails probably. It ultimately won't matter to me even now. It's a done deal what Rue feels about it. I don't blame Rue or anybody for the fact that I spent all my money. And I don't, in a way, think that I should be blamed because she spent hers. It sounds heartless put this way, and I guess it is. When one begins picking it apart this way it sounds really quite awful, as though I'm just squelching the life of a young couple and now a brand new life.

Sarah Koenig

A lot of people would say that Rue looks like the heartless one in this arrangement. There she is waiting for a gentleman to die.

Ned

That's why I think this kind of speculation, there's a certain falseness about it. Yes, these thoughts flicker across every mind, mine as well as hers I'm sure, but we're civilized beings. I did what I thought I had to do. And I also think that she did what she felt she maybe not had to do, but she did what she wanted to do.

[PIANO PLAYING]

Sarah Koenig

To maintain their relationship, Ned and Rue have developed a careful communication devoid of jokes about arsenic, for example, at least to each other. The result is a textbook defense of civil society, a housebound version of Robert's Rules of Order.

Ned

It's been very civilized I think. Rue and I are polite to each other. She doesn't inquire into my problem, and I don't inquire into hers. We don't let our feelings carry us into territory that is uncharted and really will always be uncharted.

Sarah Koenig

What territory is that?

Ned

The territory that she resents the fact that I'm still alive and I resent the fact that she wants me to die. It's supposed to be a total honesty in examining every scrap of the brain, our emotions and whatnot are supposed advance something. But it usually depresses rather than advances I think. I think that we have these rules of society and whatnot for kind of good reasons. It's better to be on the surface than not because it's unanswerable, and it's territory that I'm unable to explore. And I don't think Rue is able to explore it to any benefit either.

Sarah Koenig

Because of his upbringing, Ned comes to this position naturally. But it's remarkable to me that my stepsister, a 70s wild child still known to say things like virtue is a load of crap, has come to understand the power of polite restraint. In private, of course, away from Ned, she's unapologetic about what lurks beneath their relationship.

Rue

I don't feel so very guilty about it because I don't feel anything that anybody else wouldn't feel. I know how people are. I'm no worse than anybody. Mother Teresa could be living in this apartment, if she were young with a baby and a husband, and not have those thoughts. OK? I know that.

It seems to me that people waste an awful lot of time having pretenses about what they're supposed to feel when what they really feel is what they really feel. You can't tell life to be something that it's not going to be, that it isn't. You can't argue with it. I don't mind being just a human being. That's fine.

[PIANO PLAYING]

Sarah Koenig

Both Rue and Ned moved into this house hoping it would be the last place where they'd ever unpack. Ned got his wish. But if he survives for more than another year, a strong possibility, Rue will have to move out. Her two small rooms will become too small once her baby starts to crawl. For now though, Rue's proud that the five souls living under her roof are getting along so well. And when Ned finally does die, she says she'll be sad. Along with twinges of wickedness, it's a sadness she bought along with the house.

[PIANO PLAYING]

Ned

There you have my Rachmanioff period. Well not really.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig.

[MUSIC - "LOVE NEST" BY HI LOS]

Act Three. To A De-luxe Apartment In The Sky.

Ira Glass

Act Three, To a De-luxe Apartment in the Sky. One of the producers of This American Life, Blue Chevigny, used to have a job that was all about moving day and people who did not want to face that day. She worked for an agency in New York called Project Reachout, part of Goddard Riverside Community Center. They moved homeless mentally ill people into their own homes. With most of her clients it took years.

In April, she went back to New York to watch one of the guys who she knew and liked finally get into his own room.

Blue Chevigny

Back at my old job, George stood out from a lot of the other clients. He was immediately easy to relate to. He was more talkative, more expressive, more open with people. One of my old coworkers, Dave Dean, remembers being an intern seven years ago, walking into the basement where all the clients were hanging out, playing cards, not talking much, especially to him. He remembers meeting George.

Dave Dean

He was very charming. And so the director was introducing me to the clients, introduced me to George. And George asked if I wanted to play pool, and so we played pool. And he was very friendly, very engaged, was going out of his way to make me feel at home as the new intern at the day program.

Blue Chevigny

Other clients were capable of that kind of warmth after you knew them for a little while. But very few were so friendly from the start. At that time George was living on the street. Eight years went by before he was ready to move into his own place again. What took so long? For one thing, like a lot of mentally ill people, he didn't really mind living outside ever since the day he first became homeless two decades ago.

George Clinton

One day I just got up and just left the place. I just closed the door and broke the key off in the lock, and I just took off to the streets. Now that I think about now, to just leave it the way I did leave it, it shows there are signs of a very sick man, no plans, nothing, closed it, locked the door, and broke the key off, and just leave. I left clothes, rugs on the floor, furniture, everything. I just left it.

Blue Chevigny

And you never went back and got that stuff?

George Clinton

No, I never went back. I was free. I felt like I was free as a bird. I was free, no responsibilities, nothing. I don't have to pay rent. I don't have to pay gas and light. I go over here and eat what I want when I want it. I go over here and sleep there. I was flying around like a mad man I was so free listening to my Walkman do do do do do do do do do do.

Blue Chevigny

Dave would see him in the park looking as out there as anyone you ever see on the streets of New York, in a white unitard, white shirt, white turban, and with gold chains around his neck. Dave and other workers would give him sandwiches, try to lure him back to Project Reachout where he had come for help in the past. It took a long, long time.

Dave Dean

And I kept talking with him in the park and saying George, come back. We did it before. We can do it again. Take care of yourself. Come back.

George Clinton

Dave said, I understand you're free. But life is more than just being free. You can be just as free and more comfortable than sleeping on park benches, hanging out on the subway. And so he talked to me.

Dave Dean

And he was like, I'm not ready, I'm not ready. We went on like that for a while in the park. And then for whatever reason George was ready. And he decided OK, he'll do it. And then he came back one winter.

Blue Chevigny

What makes George's case different than a lot of the other people at Project Reachout is that he happens to respond really well to medication. Without it, he says, he's angry all the time.

George Clinton

Anger was built up like I was going to explode all the time. All you had to do was say something, I'd explode on you. Boom. Before my thoughts were all over the place. You could ask me a question then, and 20 minutes later I'd ask you if you asked me a question. Now if you ask me a question I try to answer it if I have an answer. We could sit down, we could talk. I can concentrate on what's going on. But I was a real grouch.

Blue Chevigny

These days if you meet George he looks completely normal and great. He smiles all the time. He looks as if he takes time to put himself together every day. Dave says he looks like a college professor, a 48-year-old African American man with salt and pepper hair, dressing in nice suits or jackets, and looking all studious in eyeglasses. And today he's moving 40 blocks north to his own place.

Blue Chevigny

I bet you're not going to miss that dog.

George Clinton

No, you're right.

Blue Chevigny

Dave helps George moved his stuff into a van along with Christina Caine, who coordinates housing for Project Reachout and moves everyone.

Moving a homeless person usually means carrying a few garbage bags of stuff. For George, it means the van is jam-packed. He has a portable stereo, a TV, and a VCR, things he's bought with disability checks. But the real reason we have to make seven trips up and down the stairs, three people carrying stuff, is his clothes.

Dave Dean

George, your room's got a big closet?

George Clinton

Yeah, a big walk-in closet.

Dave Dean

You're going to need it.

George Clinton

That's the first thing I spotted. I said, oh wow. Look, there's a big walk-in closet.

Blue Chevigny

For the last year George has been living in a shelter where he doesn't have his own room, a place designed as transitional housing. At some point all of these clients have to move to permanent homes, and it's one of the trickiest parts of my old job. Moving day is what they're all working towards, but in many cases when that day comes, it's been like pulling teeth to get there.

Most schizophrenics share this quality with some homeowners, they don't like change. They've barely gotten used to the transitional shelter, and now they have to move. One of the guys I was closest to got so mad at me about moving that I gave him a little pep talk about it every day for months, while he just scowled at me, before he'd agree to go. He stayed in the shelter for two years. Christina is the one who now finds housing for these guys.

Christina Caine

Some feel like we don't want them anymore, and we want to make room for new people and just get them out. And they have made deep connections with a lot of the workers. And they feel hurt when that relationship changes. It doesn't necessarily end or have to end, although some of them do end it. There was a client who did move, and he never came back. And he won't see me for follow-ups. They do feel abandoned. For a lot of these people, it's their first relationship that was consistent and nonjudgmental, and they don't want to lose that.

Blue Chevigny

Because of this, during the move the three of us keep up an ongoing patter of encouragement and positive reinforcement. We open the door to his new place.

Blue Chevigny

This is is so nice.

Dave Dean

Home sweet home. Welcome.

George Clinton

Thank You.

Dave Dean

George, you have air conditioning in here.

George Clinton

We do?

Dave Dean

Look at this closet.

George Clinton

Yeah.

Christina Caine

The things that are important to, I guess you would say, the average person like having a clean place to stay, I try to stress that. Look how clean it is. And a lot of them are like, so? They lived outside. It's OK if it's not clean to them. So that's a hard selling point to get them out of the shelter. We want them somewhere clean and safe. And to them cleanliness isn't really a priority. If they feel comfortable somewhere, that's the priority.

Blue Chevigny

Even though we all know this, in our need to go on and on about how great the new place is, at some point we run low on material and find ourselves saying--

Christina Caine

George, look at this bathroom. It's so clean.

Blue Chevigny

And as we ride up in the elevator, George pines for his old room in the shelter.

George Clinton

But I loved my little room over there, Dave. You had to pry me out of it.

Dave Dean

It will take a little while, but you'll love this one soon, you know? It'll take a while. You probably won't sleep well the first few nights. It's always difficult to sleep in a new place. And that's natural. So that's going to happen. But I think, after a while, you'll like this place better. You'll appreciate it. And then when you go back to visit [UNINTELLIGIBLE], you'll be like, dang, I'm glad I got out of here.

George Clinton

I don't know. I remember the first day I moved in there. I looked at those yellow walls. I said, oh drab, yellow walls. Then you couldn't tear me out of it.

Blue Chevigny

Once people have moved inside they sometimes really struggle. And it's all a bit unpredictable who'll do well and who won't. One guy we moved took six months to figure out how to ride the simple subway commute back and forth to his place each day. But George seems happy with his new room once everything's in it. And the facility is designed for people like him, homeless and mentally ill. The rent is a fixed percentage of his disability check-- about a third. There are staff people there to help him if he needs it. But it's really his own place.

Two weeks later I go back to visit George to see how he's doing. He goes back every day to Project Reachout to visit Dave, and get his meds, and to go to his day program.

George Clinton

I have it down to a basic science of six minutes, six minutes traveling time from here to Reachout. And I get up in the morning, and I do my thing. I wash my face, brush my teeth, comb my hair, slide into my clothes. I look at the time. I see the train is coming. So I press the elevator. That's how cool it is. I walk real cool and calm to the elevator. It goes ding. And then I go downstairs and I walk around the corner. And then I get to the train station and I hear the train coming, and I have to start flying. Boogidy boogidy boogy boogy. I shoot the metro card through the machine and get on the train. And six minutes later I'm at the corner of Amsterdam and 96th Street on my way into Reachout.

Blue Chevigny

He talks at length about the unlimited metro card pass that he pays for once a month, the pass that lets him ride around the city on the subway and buses as much as he wants and visit his old buddies in the shelter, which he does nearly every day. The city seems full of possibilities.

After we finish talking, George walks me to the bus I'm taking to the airport. He says he's never flown in an airplane anywhere, but now that he knows what bus goes out there he thinks he'll go out and watch some planes take off some time. He asks me how I'm doing off in Chicago, a whole new city. I tell him things are good in some ways, not so good in others. I tell him I miss New York. He pats me on the arm. He says it takes some time to get used to things.

Ira Glass

Blue Chevigny.

Credits.

George Clinton

I go over here and I sleep there. I was flying around like a mad mad I was so free listening to my Walkman, do do do do do do do do do do.

Ira Glass

And producer Blue Chevigny spent a while trying to figure out what song it might be that he's singing so she could play it right after. And she came up with many possibilities. Here are just a few.

George Clinton

Do do do do do do do do.

[MUSIC - "GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE" BY EARTH, WIND, & FIRE]

Ira Glass

This is Earth, Wind, & Fire's Got To Get You Into My Life. Or is it from Jesus Christ Superstar.

George Clinton

Do do do do do do do do.

[MUSIC - "SUPERSTAR" BY JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR ORGINAL CAST]

Ira Glass

Or perhaps Simon and Garfunkel?

George Clinton

Do do do do do do do do.

[MUSIC - "MRS. ROBINSON" BY SIMON & GARFUNKEL]

Ira Glass

Or maybe Crosby, Stills & Nash?

Judy Blue Eyes" BY CROSBY, STILLS & NASH]

Ira Glass

Lou Reed.

[MUSIC - "WALK ON THE WILD SIDE" BY LOU REED]

And of course our final pick, George Clinton.

George Clinton

Do do do do do do do do.

[MUSIC - "FLASH LIGHT" BY PARLIAMENT]

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Ira Glass

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who, you know, has his own radio show that he does back in his living room about which he says--

Ned

There have been moving evenings here let me tell you.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI Public Radio International.