Transcript

169:

Pursuit of Happiness
Transcript

Originally aired 09.29.2000

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/169

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Hello. It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a bunch of different stories on that theme. And the best way to describe the theme of today's show is to kind of sidestep it for a minute and to begin with this story.

One of our producers here at the radio show, Blue Chevigny, was living in New York a few years ago with a woman that describes as a kind of random roommate, an aspiring actress.

Blue Chevigny

In the middle of the night one night, the phone rang. And it was some crank caller, stalker-y kind of person. He'd start saying these creepy things to her. And it wasn't just a crank call, because they knew her name.

Ira Glass

Her roommate hangs up on him, and he calls back. And then she tells him off, then he calls back again. And then she stops picking up the phone. But it keeps ringing. And it's not exactly clear what to do. Middle of the night. So they call the police. Blue tells the rest of the story.

Blue Chevigny

So the police come. They come up to our apartment. We're on the sixth floor of a walk-up. They come up, huffing and puffing up the stairs. It's in the middle of the night. Our apartment's a mess. It's just strange having these strangers come into your house. It's just cinematic and disorienting. I mean, they're in their cop uniforms with these guns.

And one of them is this 40-something, heavy, balding, Italian-y looking, Sipowicz kind of guy. He looks like Detective Sipowicz from NYPD Blue, Pretty much exactly. And then the other guy is this younger, really good-looking black guy. And they both just looks like they're off a TV show about the cops.

They start asking us about what's happening. And we're explaining. And my roommate just goes into this whole-- launches into this whole thing about how she's an actress, and people are calling her, and people get her phone number off her headshot. It's got her picture and her name and her phone number all in one place. It's really scary.

And the young black cop says to her, "Oh, you know, I've had that experience, because I'm an actor, too." He says, "Oh, I don't do it much anymore, but, you know, I was really pretty serious about it before I became a cop."

They start talking about what it's like-- because they're both black, and young-- playing parts in plays and auditioning for things where there aren't that many parts that are interesting for black people. And it turns out that my roommate has played the part of Juliet in a production of Romeo and Juliet, in which she was the only black person in the play. And that he's played the part of Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet where he was the only black person in the play. So they have this in common. They're talking about playing Shakespeare. They're having this whole kind of very insider, actor-y conversation about this. Just out of nowhere. When really, looking at him, you would have just thought, cop.

Meanwhile, the phone rings at some point in this conversation. And so they say, pick it up. And so my roommate picks up the phone and it's the same guy. And the cop that looks like Detective Sipowicz is gesturing for her to give him the phone. So she hands him the phone. And he gets on the phone and he says, "This is the NYPD. Don't call here anymore. If you keep calling here, we're going to trace the call and get you." He somehow indicates that they can catch him. And the guy hangs up the phone.

And there's no more phone calls. The guy doesn't call again. Ever.

After that, basically their job is done. But they still-- they're just kind of hanging around, talking for a few more minutes about this acting thing. And then the Sipowicz cop guy says to my roommate, he says, "If you're an actress, you should send your headshot to my sister, because she's a filmmaker. She's a small independent filmmaker." And we're like, "Oh, who is she? Who is she?" He's like, "Oh, well, I don't know if you would have heard of her. She just makes independent films." And we're like, "Well, we like independent films. Who is she?" And He says, "Nancy Savoca."

Who's this, you know, pretty famous little independent filmmaker lady. She made these movies that I had seen and that my roommate had seen-- this movie True Love that's great, and this movie Household Saints with Lili Taylor. And she's just a really cool woman filmmaker. And I look over at his badge and it says Detective Savoca on it. It was just bizarre. It was his sister was this indie scene woman. And he's Sipowicz, you know?

So it's just funny, and we're talking about that. And then the younger cop chimes in and says, "Well, your sister's not the only one who is creative in the family." And the Sipowicz guy gets all kind of sheepish and shy and is like, "Oh, no no no." And we're like, "What?" And the young cop says, "Well, you know, Detective Savoca over here-- Officer Savoca-- he just sent in his demo tape to Carole King." And we're like, "Carole King?" And I'm like as in, "I feel the earth move under my feet?" And he's like, "Yeah, yeah. Carole King." And we're all like, "What?"

And I was like, "Your demo tape? Demo of what?" And he's like, "Well, I'm a singer/songwriter." And I said, "And why did you send it to Carole King?" And he says, "Well, because I really like her songs and our styles are somewhat similar." And it was just one of those things where here you are, it's 1997. Somebody's style, anybody's style, is still like Carole King? Plus it's this guy-- the most Sipowicz-looking guy you ever saw in your life?

And it was just-- it was of those things, it was totally inspiring to me. Because it made me feel like just, as I suspected, as I hoped, it seemed that everybody was up to something extra on the side, had a secret talent or passion or interest, the secret thing that they love to do.

Ira Glass

One of the odd things about the founding of the United States of America is a phrase found in the Declaration of Independence, the phrase about life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness. What exactly does it mean to grow up in a country where you have an inalienable right to pursue your own happiness? Did Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers really mean it's OK to fill our hours making demos, sending them out to Carole King?

If you ask a historian who studies this sort of thing-- if you ask the historian who I asked, anyway-- it becomes clear very quickly that this is not their favorite question.

Pauline Maier

That seems to be the big question. Everyone asks that. And there is no simple answer.

Ira Glass

Pauline Maier is an expert on the Declaration of Independence. She's written a book on the Declaration of Independence. And she says all anyone ever remembers or wants to talk to her about, when it comes to the Declaration of Independence, is this one phrase, the pursuit of happiness. As a people, we Americans tend to ignore everything else about this document. Instead--

Pauline Maier

They puzzle over what does this right mean. If you have a right to trial by jury, that's pretty easy to define. But the pursuit of happiness seems somehow much more ambiguous. And I suppose it is. Because it is less concrete.

Ira Glass

It contains a promise. And almost like the kind of promise that you'd hear contained in a rock and roll song. Here's one of the founding documents of the country, which includes the phrase--

Pauline Maier

Which cares about how we feel about things in some way. The best scholarly comment on this that I've come across is by an intellectual historian named Ronald Hamowy who says, basically Jefferson left it to people to decide what gave them happiness.

Happiness is, if you think about it, an extraordinarily private thing. What gives one person happiness is another person's discontent. Some people love to play golf. To me, it would be misery incarnate chasing a little white ball over all those green hills, under beating sun. You know, it's a very private-- it's extremely private. It's extremely personal. And there's a kind of an assurance that you can do what gives you the kind of contentment, that it was left to individuals to decide.

Ira Glass

Still, we have a puritanical streak that is also part of our heritage. And for a lot of us, the notion that we're going to just pursue happiness-- it seems frivolous. It lacks dignity. It lacks moral seriousness.

Today on our radio program, a defense of the American notion that there is a decency to doing something just because it makes us happy. Our show, as always, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International. Today's program, The Pursuit of Happiness, in four acts. Act One, One Man's Treasure Is Another Man's Trash. David Rakoff heads out with 40 strangers in the middle of the night to tour the city in a completely pointless activity.

Act Two, When Happiness Hurtles Downward Like Rain, in which we examine one small case in which the pursuit of happiness goes too far. Act Three, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. We ask why one certain group of New Yorkers is far more beloved-- far happier, probably-- in Chicago than they ever are back home in New York. Act Four, How to Be Happy, One Man's Guide. Stay with us.

Act One. One Man's Treasure Is Another Man's Trash.

Ira Glass

Act One, One Man's Treasure is Another Man's Trash. We begin this show about the pursuit of happiness with a story about an actual pursuit-- a scavenger hunt, that takes hundreds of hours to create, done for the sheer pleasure of it.

David Rakoff left the sober peace and relative quiet of his apartment this summer for a night out with over three dozen happiness-seeking strangers.

David Rakoff

Jamie, captain of the white team, is reading the instructions to us, his five team members. Apparently, when we solve our first clue, we are to call into HQ, the nerve center, where, it seems, our progress will be plotted on a wall-sized map with push pins.

Jamie

This updates your location on the master map and starts a one-hour timer. One hour after this call, if you haven't found the next clue, you can call again for a hint. One hour? Oh my god. Half an hour after we give you the first hint you are entitled to a second hint. 15 minutes after that, if you still haven't found the next clue, we tell you where it is.

David Rakoff

Although this scavenger hunt is called Midnight Madness, and is modeled after a 1980 movie by the same name-- a movie that Mat Laibowitz, the organizer of this event, has seen dozens, if not hundreds, of times-- it is happily only after 8:00 in the evening when all seven teams-- some 40 of us in all-- convene on the plaza in front of the World Trade Center. Believe me, it will be midnight soon enough.

Our playing field for the evening is Manhattan, anywhere south of Houston and east of Broadway, an area which includes Wall Street, Chinatown, Little Italy and all of the Lower East Side. We will move from location to location, following a series of stealthily hidden clues. I joined Jamie's team because, like most people, I'd like to think of myself as being spontaneous, ready for anything, fun.

It will prove to be an evening of hard-won insights. The first is, I am lousy at puzzles, riddles, and games, with a negative capacity to solve clues.

Man

The clue is "Three Eyebrows." You know, we're standing in a bank lobby.

David Rakoff

"Three Eyebrows" turns out to be an anagram for Bowery and Hester, not some downtown picture of Frida Kahlo, as I actually suggested.

Man

It's a clue that says, "The shortest distance to this subway station is four from Union Square, five from Union Street, and five from Wall Street."

David Rakoff

This is actually the Delancey Street subway, not the Brooklyn Bridge stop as I posited, which is a good $6.00 cab ride out of the way.

Man

Ah, there you go. There you go. Very clever. Very clever. It's a picture of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. And [? the sighting is ?] Queen Elizabeth.

David Rakoff

This is a clue directing us to go to the corner of Prince and Elizabeth streets. Even I got that. I'm not a complete idiot.

All told, it will be an evening of over seven hours' duration before I finally give up. My team's peregrinations will take us, both in taxis and on foot, from the World Trade Center to Bowery and Bayard, to Bowery and Hester, to the McDonald's on Canal Street, to the Brooklyn Bridge, to the Delancey Street subway, to-- you get the picture.

There is anger. There is treachery. And there is a fair amount of boredom. Case in point, one particularly long stretch when all 40 of us stand around on the corner of Prince and Elizabeth for the better part of an hour, watching happy diners come and go from restaurants, gingerly nudging trash aside with our feet, unable to find the clues.

Jamie

I can just feel the puns raining from my body.

David Rakoff

As abject as this extended loitering sounds, it's not. Some of the clues are downright beautiful. In the Delancey Street subway, the clue was a perfect mock-up of a Transit Authority notice taped to the white wall-- the font, the paper stock, right down to the two Ms for Midnight Madness, printed in that bold white uppercase letter in a black circle that indicates a subway line. Everything about it is such a flawless imitation that we walked by it three times before realizing.

One year the game masters printed the clue in fake Chinese takeout menus and threw them around a building lobby. I asked Dan Michaelson, Mat's co-game master, about his favorite moment of the night.

Dan Michaelson

There was a moment during the damage control when everybody was in Battery Park. So we got to see everyone at that time and walk around. That, to me, was a really nice moment.

David Rakoff

It's no great revelation that he and I might have different ideas of what constitutes a good time. People are rarely in sync. One person's gun safety lock is another person's abridgement of their most sacred right. One person's Barbra Streisand concert is another person's, well, Barbra Streisand concert.

I know the moment Dan is talking about. It was when we were all at the War Memorial, a starkly beautiful plaza right by the water with about a dozen huge concrete slabs, 20 feet high by 18 feet wide, engraved with the names of the young men who gave their lives for their country. The players walk around shining their flashlights over the tablets, looking for the names of soldiers that correspond to the clue that has been dredged up from the depths of the Hudson River.

I might agree with Dan about how nice this moment was if it was during the day. But it is close to 4:00 in the morning. My brain has long since stopped functioning. My feet hurt. I am tired. And I am very, very cranky. Rats scurry through the bushes nearby. Mosquitoes buzz about our ears, their thoraxes no doubt full of West Nile virus.

Just then, Jamie runs into a friend of his. This friend is not part of our game.

I'll let you in on something. If you are a gay man walking through a dark New York City park at 3:30 in the morning, there is a reason for it. And that reason is not so you will run into someone you know. In fact, the last person you want to run into is someone you know. Actually, the second last person you want to run into is someone you know. The very last person you want to run into is someone you know accompanied by dozens of jolly amateur sleuths. With flashlights.

Jamie's friend beats a hasty retreat. My co-Encyclopedia Browns go back to parsing the tombstones while I, in turn, come upon my second insight of the evening. I am no fun, no fun at all. Or perhaps I'm just a different kind of fun.

I decide to follow my own bliss-- the bliss of the quitter, the killjoy, the pill. Emerging from the park, I hail a cab. Hurtling through the deserted canyons of the Wall Street area, I settle back into the seat of the taxi. I'm on my way home to bed. And for almost the first time that evening, I feel happy.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff.

[MUSIC - "EVERYBODY'S GONNA BE HAPPY" BY THE KINKS]

Act Two. When Happiness Hurtles Downward Like Rain From Heaven.

Ira Glass

Act Two, When Happiness Hurtles Down Like Rain from Heaven. Back when Thomas Jefferson wrote the phrase "pursuit of happiness" into the Declaration of Independence, the phrase was kind of knocking around. People used it.

And one of the ideas that it referred to was the notion that people would find happiness when they did things for the common good, teamed together for everybody's well being. A very democratic idea. In modern times we rarely hear the word used this way, the phrase used this way. If anything, when we talk about people pursuing happiness, they're pursuing their own happiness, sometimes at the expense of others.

We have this short story from Thomas Beller about one of the smallest possible examples of this more selfish kind of pursuit, of how we go from the innocently amusing of ourselves to less innocent activities.

Thomas Beller

Alex Fader grew up in an apartment on the 14th floor of a large, prewar building that took up an entire block of Riverside Drive. From his bedroom window, which looked north, he could see a broad patch of sky, the tops of buildings, a multitude of wooden water towers. And off to the left, visible only if he pressed his cheek to the window pane, the Hudson River.

The view that most fascinated him, however, was the one to be had by looking directly down.

Once when he was six, he suddenly rose from his bath, opened the narrow bathroom window above it, and leaned out. He balanced on his wet stomach, arms and legs outstretched like Superman, contemplating what it would be like to take the plunge, and if his life so far had contained enough satisfaction so that it could now reasonably come to a close. He stayed teetering on the window sill, looking at the distant pavement below, trying to imagine what it would feel like to land there and what he would be thinking during those thrilling seconds of flight.

Half his body felt the moist familiarity of the bathroom. And the other half, wet and gleaming like a dolphin, hung in the cold air of the unknown.

Then a faint curiosity as to what would happen after his fall-- the ensuing hours and days, the circuit itself. He pictured himself in a steaming heap on the concrete below, and a few minutes later, his parents would be staring confusedly at the bathtub, full of murky water but empty of him.

The image of his parents trying to make sense of the empty bath was amusing at first but then became unpleasant. With the same entranced conviction with which he had got up on the ledge, he got down, closed the window, and resumed his bath.

Having decided he would not throw his body out the window, he began throwing smaller, less valuable objects. First, a cracker. It went spinning out the window and out of sight and its absence seemed profound. Next were water balloons, whose wobbly downward trajectory he always monitored until they hit the ground, after which the small figure of the doorman would appear hustling out onto the wet pavement, looking up. Alex loved the sight of this tiny figure, so formidable in real life, appearing on the sidewalk. But in watching from above, he was usually spotted from below.

Things were different at his friend Walker's apartment. Walker lived a few blocks south of Alex on Riverside Drive, also on the 14th floor. They were 10, and new best friends. And Walker was constantly surprising him with new and interesting ways to express malice. With regard to throwing things out the window, it was Walker who introduced the idea of a human target.

The windows of Walker's apartment all looked out over the Hudson River, and directly below was a broad, lonely patch of sidewalk onto which people arrived like actors walking onto a stage. They would stand perched at Walker's kitchen window, both holding onto a pot full of water balanced on the ledge, waiting for a suitable victim.

They once observed an attractive young woman walking briskly, with a bouquet of flowers in her hands, towards a man who was standing with several suitcases around him, as though waiting for a taxi, right beneath their window. He was a perfect victim. They were about to douse the man with water, but it looked like something incredibly romantic was about to occur, some long awaited reunion. And Alex and Walker instinctively held back and watched.

The woman had a strapless top on. And even from the distance of 14 floors, Alex could make out the subtle jump of her shoulder muscles and the tremulous softness of her breasts as they bounced up and down with each step. The flowers had delicate pink petals. The man with the suitcases stared at her as she approached with bold strides. His body was still and unmoving, his gaze fixed. He was oblivious to everything else in the world but her.

She walked right up to him and bashed him in the face with the bouquet, a violent forehand smash. The petals scattered like confetti. Then, without missing a beat, she turned on her heel and stomped back in the direction she had come, still clutching the considerably less flowery bouquet. The man just stood there.

Alex and Walker were so transfixed by this scene they forgot to pour water on him.

Other people were less fortunate. Alex and Walker would stand guard at the kitchen window until someone appeared on Riverside Drive. There would be time to size up the target-- gait, posture, clothes. At a certain ideal moment, the water would fall forward from their pot in one solid translucent mass and then split in half, and then in half again, and again, so that what started as a single glob on the 14th floor ended as a thousand pellets of water on the ground. The pale pavement darkened, and the victim became completely still. This momentary freeze was, for some reason, the most delicious part.

There was one set of victims who stayed in Alex's mind for a long time afterwards. A little girl wearing a pink coat, white stockings, and shiny black shoes ambled down the sunny street a half step behind her mother. She looked as if she were on her way either to or from a party. She walked with unsteady steps and her mother walked beside her, looking down and talking, but also giving the girl her independence. They were two small objects alone on the sidewalk.

The water hit the ground in a great hissing mass and they froze like everyone else. But in the several seconds between the pour and the splatter, as Alex watched the water fragment and descend, a tremendous pang of regret leapt up in his stomach instead of the more familiar thrill. As he watched the jerky, awkward expressiveness of the little girl walking beneath the water's widening net, he understood that there was a small corrupting moment about to take place. One kid introducing another to the random world of fate and bad luck.

[MUSIC - "RAINDROPS KEEP FALLING ON MY HEAD" BY BJ THOMAS]

Ira Glass

Thomas Beller reading from his novel The Sleep-Over Artist. Coming up, a second story about New York cops, which'll show you another side of them that you have also never imagined. That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme. Today's program, The Pursuit of Happiness. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but in the years since Thomas Jefferson declared that it was our inalienable right to pursue happiness, we have pursued it about as aggressively as any group of people could. We invent pointless, time-wasting activities like no place else does-- the television industry, all manner of extreme sports, Nerf equipment. We are the world's biggest proponents of the idea of just hitting the road and starting a new life if the old one does not suit you. We perpetually create new ways to have fun.

Which is sort of the subject of the next act of today's show. Act Three, When Irish Eyes are Smiling. Every year the Emerald Society, an association of Irish Chicago police officers, flies in policemen from New York City for Chicago's two big Saint Patrick's Day parades. Every year they are met by a group of South Side women. This American Life producer Julie Snyder tells the story.

Julie Snyder

There are two main Irish cop bars in Chicago. One is called Dugan's in the not-so-Irish neighborhood of Greektown. The other is the not-so-Irish-named Ira's, located in Chicago's 12th police district. And normally these bars are pretty tame, filled mainly with men watching sports on the overhead TVs. But on the Saturday of Saint Patrick's Day weekend, everything changes.

The bars are filled with women, who are there for the New York City police officers, who are there for the women, who are there because they get to act in a way they never normally act.

Kelly

Normally, you wouldn't make out in a bar. Especially at our age, we're too old for that. But by 4:00, 5:00, 6:00 in the afternoon, sure. You can give somebody a big smooch at the bar. That's totally acceptable that weekend.

Julie Snyder

Kelly [? Farider ?] is a waitress at Dugan's, and she's the person who originally told me about the New York City cops coming to Chicago. But when I called her recently to find out more, she said she'd really have to take me to the source. So we got together one night in Tammy [? Tanzillo's ?] living room, surrounded by police paraphernalia-- policeman's hats, shirts, photographs.

Tammy is 40-ish, completely beautiful, and is an attorney for the state of Illinois. She is also the original New York police groupie.

It all started about 13 or 14 years ago. At the time, Tammy knew a lot of Chicago cops because she trained supervisors in the police department. And one Friday night, like most Friday nights, she went to Dugan's after she got off work.

Tammy

And one of the cops that I knew was there, and he had a bunch of guys with him. No one was in uniform or anything. And he said, "I have a favor to ask you." And I said, "What?" I just got done with work, I had-- this was at least 12 years ago, I had on those big beetle glasses and a stupid plaid skirt. I looked more like a school teacher than anything else. Which isn't a bad thing but not in that circumstance. Anyway. So he said, "I need you to help me out." I said, "What do you need?" He said, "Well, I've got this group of 12 New York policemen here, that are here for the weekend for the parades, and I was hoping you could help me to entertain them." And I said, "Whoa. Hold on a minute here. What do you mean by entertain?"

And he said, "Seriously, you're a lot of fun to hang out with. Just have a few beers and keep them company and talk to them. I can't talk to them all myself." So I begrudgingly said yes.

Well, we had so much fun that from that day on, I was glued to them.

Julie Snyder

The first year, there were 12 guys brought by the Emerald Society into Chicago. By this past year, it had grown to 160 men and women from the New York City police department to march in the Saint Patrick's Day parades. And it's no wonder they come. They're feted at the parades, at parties thrown in their honor, and at the local bars. They're kept on an itinerary that seems completely geared toward making the police officers feel like kings and queens.

Tammy

They are ready to go from the minute that they are feted at Chicago. And that's why a little bit they are followed around. And there are young ladies that-- I think the word is on the street that they're coming to town.

I've gotten to be more of a mother figure to some of these guys. I mean, there's a drill. When I show up at the parade, I see them, and I say, make sure that you take your shields off. Make sure that you keep your uniform. Make sure that you stay with the group. Make sure that you don't give away your collar brass too early, because it's going to go up in stock as the weekend goes by.

Julie Snyder

OK. A quick explanation. The officers have to take off their shields, or their badges, because the New York Police Department doesn't officially sanction their trip to Chicago. They have to watch their clothes-- their hats, their jackets, their shirts-- because as the drinking continues, and as the flirting continues, women are constantly taking their things and trying them on. One year, when the weekend was over, Tammy had to FedEx one of the $300 uniform jackets back to a New York precinct.

And then there's the collar brass.

Tammy

Everybody, all the women especially, are vying for the collar brass. And I'll show you what that is. Now I have a box about the size of a shoe box full of little numbers. And I couldn't find it, but I did find this little one. And this is what they are. As you can see, they're just about short of an inch high and, depending upon the letter, about an inch long. But that says two four, that'd be the two four. That'd be the 24th precinct in New York. I mean, it becomes a real clothes fest.

Well, I'm showing you some of the pictures of what I look like by the end of the night. You know, I mean, that guy's getting a little frisky there. And there was one in here where I was looking really like I was having a good time for a long time. There we go.

Julie Snyder

You're in a police officer's shirt and hat--

Tammy

That's just not a shirt, that would be a sergeant's shirt.

Julie Snyder

Sorry. The sergeant's shirt. Now are these all the pictures you have, or do you have more than this?

Tammy

Oh, no, I have tons and tons of pictures. In fact, they'll send pictures. This is a picture of Mike, who is the person that now is still coordinating the trip. And you can tell he's having a good time-- big smile on his face, cute young lady sitting on his lap. And Brian.

Julie Snyder

Who's Brian?

Tammy

Brian is the police officer that I met the first year that they had the group here, that I probably will always have a little bit of a crush on. But then there's Joey.

Julie Snyder

This weekend, Saint Patrick's Day weekend, is not really Tammy's actual life. She's a grown up, an attorney who's now in a long-term relationship. But that's the beauty of it all with the New York cops, because none of it is real. Tammy says that all normal, real-life ways of dating don't apply that weekend.

Julie Snyder

How many romances do you think that you've had through the Saint Patrick's Day weekends?

During this pause, I can't tell if Tammy's deciding whether to answer the question or counting.

Tammy

I think I have to protect the innocent here. I have taken a shine to a few gentlemen over the years, but always realizing that-- I've had a guy come back over the past couple of years that I've enjoyed some time with. But I'm seeing someone now, so-- you know, your life doesn't stop.

Julie Snyder

Once, when Tammy was dating someone and Saint Patrick's Day was coming up, she told her boyfriend that he may not be seeing much of her that weekend, that maybe it was a good time for him to go on a short, three-day vacation to Wisconsin. She says the following year she didn't even have to ask him to leave. He just knew.

All of this might come as a surprise to the citizens of New York City where, to put it mildly, these same New York cops don't get this kind of adulation. Like they say, nobody's a prophet in his own land. Even Tammy, who started a website called NYPD Love, can't explain what makes them seem so larger than life. Tammy comes from a whole Chicago law enforcement family. She says she loves Chicago cops, but the New York police feel different and special.

Maybe out here in the Second City, the NYPD gets respect because they seem like the real police, the police we see on TV, the police who just sound like police.

Tammy

I think it's something about those accents.

Julie Snyder

Oh, their New York accents?

Tammy

Yeah. It's so real. It's so real. I mean, they sound so genuine. And most of them really are.

Julie Snyder

To put all this in context, this happens in the Irish part of Chicago's South Side, where lots of people have cops as family and friends. During a weekend when the whole neighborhood turns itself over to one big party, the main event is the South Side Saint Paddy's Parade on Sunday. The parade route on Western Avenue is lined with dingy little Irish bars, the sidewalks are clogged, backyard parties are thrown-- even some with those big white tents-- and you'll hear this song sung over and over and over.

Tammy

[SINGING] "Oh we're the South Side Irish like our fathers were before. We come from the Windy City and we're Irish to the core. From Bridgeport to Beverly, from Midway to South Shore, oh, we're the South Side Irish," and then it goes on and on and on.

Kelly

You know that song. I couldn't even have sung it. And I've heard that about 10,000 times. It's even on the jukebox, actually, in a lot of neighborhood pubs.

And most people, in fact, growing up on the South Side with everybody going to the parade, a lot of people know that they're not going to work Monday. They're not kidding themselves, so they take the day off. And growing up out there, it can sort of be a family event too. Because people's parents, they know you go to the parade, but they're going to have dinner waiting back at the house. So you come back, eat dinner. You go to so-and-so's aunt's.

I mean, there's a lot of-- I guess it's kind of like Christmas without the presents, but then a lot more beer.

Julie Snyder

Or maybe like New Year's Eve, I suggest. Tammy and Kelly both say, no, it's way better. There's no pressure to look your best, or have the right date or do something significant to mark another year. The great thing about Saint Patrick's Day, they tell me, is that it's not really about anything. So you can make it into whatever you want.

Ira Glass

This American Life senior producer Julie Snyder.

[MUSIC - "SOUTH SIDE IRISH" BY THE IRISH CHOIR]

Act Four. How To Be Happy, One Man's Guide.

Ira Glass

Act Four, How to be Happy, One Man's Guide.

Finding happiness is serious business. Or it can be. I think for many of us, it requires an act of will. Nancy Updike tells this story of somebody who decided to turn something that made him unhappy into the opposite.

Nancy Updike

Marcus Johnson runs a boxing gym on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles and he's a great teacher. To explain what makes him so good, let me ask you a question. Have you ever had a parent try to teach you a sport? Where they push you way too hard and you can see them getting more and more frustrated and disappointed. And on the inside you give up, but on the outside you keep going. And they keep going too. And both of you just end up miserable.

Marcus is the opposite of that. He's like a good date, where everything feels both easy and serious at the same time. He's always paying attention, always murmuring directions and encouragement.

Marcus Johnson

Don't raise up, squat down. Step. Step. There you go. Step. There you go.

Nancy Updike

All of Marcus's clients are adults, except this one, who's the son of a friend. Josh is 11 and this is his first lesson. Josh is, frankly, adorable. He has big brown eyes, dark curly hair, and dimples when he smiles. And he's making a very common beginner's mistake, which is starting his punches from way too far back, telegraphing his every move.

Marcus keeps telling Josh he has to be quicker and throw shorter punches. Finally Marcus just starts moving the pads away before Josh can hit them, to show him what can happen with too big a wind-up.

Josh

It's not fair.

Marcus Johnson

Come on, you keep putting your hands back, you're letting me know. You've got to be quick. From right there. Come on. That's how it's got to be.

Josh

This tastes like I just had a Fruit Roll-up.

Nancy Updike

Did you catch that? Josh made a face and said, "It tastes like I just had a Fruit Roll-up."

Marcus Johnson

What did that come from? A Fruit Roll-up?

Josh

I don't know.

Marcus Johnson

Boxers are supposed to-- Boxers are not supposed to be--

[LAUGHTER]

Nancy Updike

The two of them had a ball and Josh visibly improved over the course of just an hour. He relaxed, which is the hardest part of boxing. And then something really sad happened. After Josh was finished, his father walked over. He'd been on his cell phone in the back of the gym the whole time. And he started making Josh do these special tough-guy push-ups, something about keeping your butt in the air and only lowering your chest to the floor.

Josh's Dad

And then push yourself up from there. One more time. One more time.

Marcus Johnson

He just went a whole hour, man, boxing.

Josh's Dad

One more time. That's it. You see? Your butt hit the floor before your chest did. You done? Or you dead?

Nancy Updike

You could just see Josh withdraw and get sullen over the course of these exercises. But then even after that-- and I swear I am not making this up-- Josh's father made him read a paragraph about responsibility from some pamphlet out loud, twice, because Josh stumbled the first time.

Josh's Dad

No stuttering. Come on.

Josh

I have to memorize this?

Josh's Dad

You will. But right now you have to read it clearly. And loud.

Josh

Um. "Responsibility. Responsibility starts with saying you were cause in the matter."

Nancy Updike

What makes Marcus such a good teacher is that he's not an over-eager parent. And maybe it helps that as a kid, Marcus never even liked boxing. He did it to please his dad, a college track star who almost went to the Olympics and dreamed of turning Marcus into the heavyweight champion of the world. "You're going to be my ticket out of the ghetto," he'd tell Marcus at 13.

Then after Marcus's mother died and his father got caught up in the wave of crack that hit the neighborhood in the mid-'80s. his father lost his job, the power got cut off, and Marcus still kept boxing, because the guys at the gym were the only ones who looked after him. They fed him, drove him to school, let him stay with them sometimes. As he told me in the car one day, it was the only part of his life with any promise.

Marcus Johnson

I was boxing and I never liked it. But I started making myself like it because I wanted some nice things. I wanted the nice life. I used to tell the guys at the car lot-- I was, like, ninth grade, 10th grade-- you know, what? When I win a gold medal, I'll make the Olympic team or turn pro, I'll be the champion of the world, I'm going to come and buy a car from you. And it was like, OK, all right young man, keep on, hang in there. You know, all right. [PHONE RINGS] Speak to me. I would like to have at least two big screens.

Nancy Updike

Marcus is driving around doing errands for a party he's planning at the gym. He's invited around 70 people, friends and clients, to come watch the Oscar De La Hoya-Sugar Shane Mosley fight. The party's in a few days and Marcus is bringing in two huge televisions, catered soul food, and security to watch the door.

Most of his clients are agents, producers, and writers for TV shows-- bigwigs, but behind- the-scenes bigwigs, no one whose name you'd know. Marcus needs more clients. He's had the gym for less than a year and the rent is high. The party is wiping him out, but he doesn't want to talk about that.

He gets back into the car after a quick stop at the bank.

Marcus Johnson

I ain't happy. Well, I am happy, but I ain't. I ain't got no money. I'm broke. No, no. I got money, but--

Nancy Updike

I hate that. Is the party tapping you out?

Marcus Johnson

No. I mean, I know I got money. I mean, I'm cool. What? I got money. I got an abundant amount of money. Oh, I got money flowing. Woo-hoo, boy. I got loot. I got millions, baby. For real.

Nancy Updike

Marcus's single-minded goal since he was little has been to be happy. A lot of people find happiness too abstract, or maybe too ambitious a goal to aim for. But to Marcus, it's very real. It's something he trains for, and plans for, and believes in. He has a commitment to being happy. When he's not enjoying something anymore, he just stops it-- stops doing it, stops thinking it, stops talking about it. It's hard work. It's daily work.

Like in the car at the bank. He won't talk about not having money. He'll pretend he does have money. Like when I watch him get some bad news from a credit card company in the mail. He just stops himself in the middle of getting mad about it and says, "I'm hungry." Like when he started teaching boxing, he made a rule. No hitting in the face. Just because he always hated it. It hurt.

So at his gym, you learn to punch hard, move your feet, and keep your stamina up. But no hitting in the face.

He still doesn't like boxing. But boxing is what he knows. He wants to use it to get to the point where he can stop boxing. What he really wants is to be an actor, a model, both of which he's done a little bit of. Whenever one of his clients brings a celebrity by the gym-- Puff Daddy, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube-- he can just feel it. He's getting closer.

Marcus Johnson

Can you believe somebody hitting this hard, he wrote Harriet the Spy. For children. And look at him. Rrrrr. Rrrrr. Harriet the Spy.

Nancy Updike

Marcus is in the ring with Doug Petrie, a television and screenplay writer. They're practicing a rapid-fire jab-hook-jab combination.

When Marcus first started getting more and more Hollywood people, like Doug, as clients, he found he was afraid to speak a lot of the time. He'd hear a voice in his head telling him--

Marcus Johnson

Man, just be quiet. Just shut up, don't say nothing. Just don't ask no questions. Or you are going to make yourself look bad, don't look like no fool.

Nancy Updike

So he made a decision that he was just going to stop worrying all the time about looking bad in front of these rich, college-educated white people. It was miserable. He made a change.

Marcus Johnson

I used to listen to people all the time and say the words that they said. And use the words like they use them.

Nancy Updike

And he really does this. I heard him do it with me. We were in the middle of a long talk about the fears that learning to box can help overcome, and somehow the word conjuring came up.

Marcus Johnson

We fear the unknown. And it's things that come to us, like in our mind, what we-- what word am I looking for? Not dream, but conjugate up, condur--

Nancy Updike

Conjuring up.

Marcus Johnson

Conjuring up.

Nancy Updike

The fears that you conjure up.

Marcus Johnson

Fears that you conjure up, but those--

Nancy Updike

He went back to the word four minutes later, making sure he'd got it.

Marcus Johnson

Because he's going to conju-- con-- say that word again.

Nancy Updike

Conjure.

Marcus Johnson

Conjure. He's going to conjure up just different-- what if somebody jumped from out behind the alley and want to take my purse. All those things are conjured up in your mind.

Nancy Updike

15 minutes later, he used it again, when he was talking about his own fear, his fear of speaking. And this time when he said it, he looked at me and laughed, because he knew he was doing it.

Marcus Johnson

I'm listening to people talk all the time. They're doing deals on the phone and these business people. And I'm going, I want to be able to, you know, conjure up words and sound smart.

Nancy Updike

Los Angeles, like every other big city in America, is segregated between black and white. But it's more complete here. The dividing line is the 10 freeway. North of it is West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Hollywood. South of it, where Marcus grew up, is Inglewood, South Central, Watts. The separation is so complete that if you live north of the 10 it's possible to go for a week without laying eyes on a single black person.

Only a certain kind of person ever makes the jump from one side of the 10 to the other. And one of the things that makes Marcus capable of it is that it's not a chore for him to find out about new things. He's curious about them. He enjoys it. In high school, when he spent a year at a mostly white school, he started getting into heavy metal, Quiet Riot. Now he eats an organic salad for lunch every day, the kind of food he'd never even heard of growing up.

The party is in two days. Marcus is sprucing up. He's already had a manicure and now he's at his sister Michelle's cosmetology class to get his hair rebraided. Michelle is going to show the class how to braid by doing Marcus's hair.

He walks through the room introducing himself to everyone, a process that involves a blend of charm, attentiveness and self-effacement so potent that the room feels giddy by the end of it. It's not just because he's 6'1", high cheekbones, model good looks, huge smile. His charm doesn't only work with women. I've seen him work it over the phone with strangers, with someone he cut off in his car. He's interested in people. He asks where they're from, where they live. He notices things about them.

While his head is under a faucet a friend of Michelle's is standing next to him, holding the shampoo.

Marcus Johnson

How old is your child?

Woman

Two. You said, how old is my child? Two.

Marcus Johnson

Two. Boy?

Woman

Girl.

Marcus Johnson

Girl.

Woman

He said, how old is your child? I was trying to figure out how he knew I had a child too.

Nancy Updike

Maybe it was just a lucky guess. I ask Marcus about it later, how he'd known she had a child. And he couldn't tell me. He didn't know how he knew. He just had a feeling.

Marcus Johnson

I'm going to have the VIP seat. A VIP going to be able to sit in the ring and watch the fight.

Nancy Updike

Nice.

It's the afternoon of the party and Marcus is all energy. He's arranging chairs, checking the angle of the two big TVs, one of which is blaring the movie About Last Night.

The pre-fights don't start for another two hours. The main event is in five hours. The caterers are setting up tables for the food.

Marcus Johnson

They can adjust them. They can move them closer if they want to. You know, this ain't no [UNINTELLIGIBLE], they better fix them chairs where they can see. It's like a backyard barbecue. I know we here in Hollywood, and Hollywood is going to be in here, but we doing it the old-fashioned way. You better get your plate on, your paper plate, and get your plastic fork and spoon and your water. It's all good.

Nancy Updike

In 45 minutes the food is set up. It smells great, and there's a ton of it, enough for 100 people-- cornbread, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken. Everything's all set. The TVs are on the right channel. The doors are open.

Over the next several hours, people trickle in. Some family, some friends from Inglewood and South Central, Marcus's pastor, people he knew from boxing. But Hollywood never shows up. Clients he's had for three years, people whose Passover Seders he's attended. Only two of Marcus's clients come by, and one of them is the kid, Josh.

I'm one of about half a dozen white people. Marcus's frenzied party energy dissipates slowly over the hours. But he stays charming with everyone he talks to, seems genuinely happy to see the people who do come. His poise is painful to watch.

During the five hours of the party, and in the days afterward, I never hear him suggest that anything that night is a disappointment. If he ever thinks such a thought, I'm sure he stops himself.

There's something I haven't told you about Marcus. Two weeks before I started interviewing him for this story, he found God. As Marcus puts it, he gave his life to Christ. The whole time I was interviewing him, all I wanted to talk about was what he did to get where he is, and all he wanted to talk about was how God was the real force behind every good thing in his life. It frustrated me. Marcus's faith kept intruding on the story I wanted to get.

I wanted to know about Marcus's life, his experiences, his choices, the hard work of creating a happy life. That was going to be my whole point in this story, that we pretend happiness is some natural state we would just fall into if we stopped running around being so ambitious and greedy and self-obsessed. When, in fact, it takes tremendous effort to be happy.

But if I'm looking at Marcus as a study in how to be happy, then there's something besides hard work that you need to be happy. You need faith. Not necessarily religious faith, although in Marcus's case it is. But you do need to believe that happiness is possible. You need to accept that. That's what God gave Marcus.

Marcus Johnson

My motto is "Feed the faith and starve the doubt." Now I just have faith. I just got faith. I'm out here on faith. I did everything on faith.

Nancy Updike

What did you go on, how did you keep going before you started believing in God again?

Marcus Johnson

This is what I'm telling you. I was just going without the belief of God. I just was going on just my strength, courage and faith. And I wasn't going to quit. I was going to find out. I wanted the life that I wanted. And I wanted a life of peace and happiness. I wanted heaven on earth, that's what I wanted. I lived on this street here. When I started boxing, I started boxing on this block right here.

Nancy Updike

We're driving down the street Marcus lived on when he was 13, Manhattan Place. His godmother still lives on the block.

Marcus Johnson

Hi, Ms. Culvert.

Ms. Culvert

Heya.

Marcus Johnson

Hi, ma.

Ms. Culvert

How you doing, son?

Marcus Johnson

Fine.

Nancy Updike

We only stay for a few minutes, just long enough for him to tell her the big news.

Marcus Johnson

Guess what?

Ms. Culvert

What?

Marcus Johnson

I gave my life to Christ, who saved me.

Ms. Culvert

Praise the Lord.

Marcus Johnson

He saved me. Mother's Day.

Ms. Culvert

That's the greatest that you ever could have done in life.

Marcus Johnson

He saved me Mother's Day.

Ms. Culvert

That's the greatest thing you could have ever done in life.

Marcus Johnson

I said to myself, what have I been doing this whole time?

Ms. Culvert

OK. Nothing like being in the hands of the Lord, is there? Nothing.

Marcus Johnson

Nothing.

Ms. Culvert

See why I stay with it?

Nancy Updike

At this point, she abruptly turns to me while Marcus is still talking and asks, "Do you know God?" I shake my head, and she gives me a look so startling, a combination of bewilderment, pity and disgust. And then she turns away.

Marcus Johnson

We can't stay long. I've got to get ready to go. I just stopped by to just say hi.

Man

OK. All right, good to see you.

Marcus Johnson

And give you a hug and say, God bless you.

Nancy Updike

We get in the car and drive back across the 10.

Marcus Johnson

I love you.

Ms. Culvert

Love you too, baby. You know we do. Hurry back, now.

Marcus Johnson

All right.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike.

Our program was produced today by Blue Chevigny and myself with Alex Blumberg and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike and consiglierie Sarah Vowell. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Hillary Frank.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

To buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago. 312-832-3380. Or you can listen to our programs for free on the internet at our website, www.thislife.org.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who begins every staff meeting with his weird diatribes about fictional child detectives.

Marcus Johnson

Rrrrr. Rrrrr. Harriet the Spy.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.