Transcript

177:

American Limbo
Transcript

Originally aired 02.09.2001

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/177

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When he was 15, Lee was living illegally in the United States. He'd come over from China, and he worked in a series of Chinese restaurants in small towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York. He didn't speak English, though he wanted to. He didn't go to school, though he wanted to. Instead, he and the other illegal immigrants working in these restaurants lived in tiny apartments, sometimes in the back of the restaurants, sleeping on bunk beds, working 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Lee Qi

The one thing that I can tell you is that we had really little contact with other people, you know what I mean?

Ira Glass

The thing that must have been so strange, though, is that you're working in a restaurant, and so you would see all these people come in, and you would see families with kids and people your own age. And it must've just seemed like they were on the other side of some sort of wall that you could never climb over.

Lee Qi

Yeah. I feel like it's a different world. It's like people don't even see you sometimes, if you're working behind a restaurant. Sometimes you feel mad, you feel angry, that you can't be like them. And then you try to think about why. I can't find a reason.

Ira Glass

We talked about this a while. And finally, I told Lee that it seemed like he was living in a kind of limbo-- not his old life in China, not a real American life. And he agreed.

Lee Qi

Limbo, yeah. Right between, somewhere in between, and you don't know where it is, actually.

Ira Glass

You know, the idea of limbo comes from the church. And originally it was used to describe people who aren't going to heaven, but they aren't bad enough for hell.

Lee Qi

Yeah, I know what this means. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Which country is the heaven and which country is the hell?

Lee Qi

Well, I don't know if you've heard-- there's a TV show in China. It's called Peking People in New York.

Ira Glass

Peking People in New York?

Lee Qi

Yeah. You know the city of Peking, right?

Ira Glass

Sure. Beijing.

Lee Qi

Beijing. OK. So it's the title of the TV show. And every time the TV show comes out, every time an episode comes out, there's a code. So if you like the person, send the person to New York, because it is heaven. If you hate a person, also send the person to New York, because it is hell. Every time you see that episode, you see this code. [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] I thought it was fun.

Ira Glass

Yes, America can be heaven. It can be hell. But today on our program, American Limbo, stories of people who somehow have ended up living completely outside the grid of normal American life. We have three stories for you in three acts.

Act One, The Family That Flees Together, Trees Together. I know that does not make a lot of sense right now, but believe me, it will. It will.

Act Two, What's French For "Steeee-rike Three?" An American parent abroad tries to make his kid more American using the powerful force that is American baseball, and how is it that any kid could resist that?

Act Three, It's Julie Andrews' World, Sylvia Just Lives in It, in which one girl takes a tape recorder to college and documents her first year in just 11 minutes.

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

Act One. The Family That Flees Together, Trees Together.

Ira Glass

Act One. This is the story of a family that drops out entirely from society, goes on the run after they get in trouble with the law. Two parents, six kids, no money, making do as they can for seven years. And how do the kids turn out after all that? Actually, surprisingly, kind of great. The family is called the Jarvises. This American Life producer Alex Blumberg visited them in Florida.

Alex Blumberg

Here's a typical scene in the life of the Jarvis family. The kids are gathered around a shallow well, maybe three feet deep. An alligator is trapped inside. Their first instinct? Rescue the poor thing.

Jarvis Son

Poor thing, eh?

Anna Jarvis

[? James, ?] just reach your hand down there and pull it out.

Jarvis Son

No, I don't want to do that.

Cy Jarvis

Well, he just keeps whipping so fast.

Anna Jarvis

Stick your hand in his mouth and see what he does.

Alex Blumberg

That's Anna, 14, the youngest girl, advising her brother Cy, 21, to stick his hand in the alligator's mouth. Cy has a different idea, a completely ingenious one, and in a moment, he's holding a kind of makeshift noose in his hand.

Cy Jarvis

I'm going to take this snare that I got and I'm going to put it over his mouth and then I'm going to pull it tight so he can't bite.

Alex Blumberg

And where'd you get that snare?

Cy Jarvis

I just made it real quick, whipped it out of some string and some sticks. Come on, there, gator, just relax. Just relax.

Alex Blumberg

For seven years, the Jarvis family lived on the run-- in a treehouse in a cypress swamp, in the rotting hull of a boat, anywhere they could hide. But before that, for over 20 years, they lived in a house they built themselves, far from anyone, in the middle of a forest in West Virginia. They grew most of their own food in their garden. A natural gas well on their property powered their appliances. They had no electric bill, no heating bill. This is the mom, Eileen Jarvis.

Eileen Jarvis

We just wanted to make our own little world, really, and have our handle on it. I feel like my kids grew up in Never-Never Land.

Alex Blumberg

Did they really? How so?

Eileen Jarvis

They had 140 acres plus to run around and play in and they used every bit of it. They had a treehouse or a fort in every tree.

Alex Blumberg

Eileen and her husband Ron were '60s back-to-the-land dropouts who'd actually stayed dropped out. Their home in the 1990s looked a lot like it did in the 1970s-- vegetarian dinners, barefoot children, lots of wood carvings. Even the crops they grew were the same, which in 1992 became a problem when a helicopter spotted a marijuana patch Ron was growing on the property.

Eileen Jarvis

My son Asa was going to cut the grass and he had the lawn mower on, and I had dinner cooking. And Asa came running in the house and he said, "Dad said to get in the van." So we just left-- left the stove on, the pressure cooker on. Dinner in the-- coffee, I had just made a pot of coffee and poured it up. And we took nothing with us. The kids didn't have shoes on their feet. We just walked out of the house and that was it.

Alex Blumberg

If you ask Ron Jarvis about the marijuana patch today, he says he planted it earlier in the year, right after his wife was diagnosed with cervical cancer, to sell and pay for her treatments. He also says he smoked pot regularly his whole life, and some of his kids did too.

Ron Jarvis

I still don't see myself as a criminal. But my decision to grow that pot caused my family to have to suffer that trauma. And it's one of the things that I feel really responsible for. It wasn't a good decision.

Alex Blumberg

The Jarvises hit the road, and it was hard. They couldn't stay with anyone they knew without implicating them into their crime. They couldn't drive their van. They couldn't rent an apartment or get a job without showing ID, and they couldn't show ID without popping up in a background check. They had six kids, the youngest seven years old, and they had seven dollars in their pocket. In retrospect, Eileen says she and Ron were just trying to do the right thing.

Eileen Jarvis

I knew I was going to be arrested, and I knew they weren't going to let me take my kids to jail with me. No, I just knew it wasn't going to be good. It wasn't going to be good. All of a sudden, I think all my kids are going to be scattered out into foster homes. Everything's flowing through my head. No, they weren't going to-- it just wasn't going to be good.

Alex Blumberg

The Jarvises caught some lucky breaks. A family friend who happened to be passing through that day, and happened to be driving a van, took them to Maryland, where all eight of them crashed in a friend's one-room attic. And for two months, it went like this. Ron and his friend would get up before dawn, drive to the forest and collect wood. By sun-up, they were back at the house, out in the backyard, cutting and bending it into benches, tables, and chairs. The kids all helped, sanding, finishing, weaving seat bottoms. If it rained, they put plastic tarps over their heads. Once they got a big enough furniture pile, they'd go to boat shows around Annapolis and sell it by the side of the road.

Eileen Jarvis

I would have a reoccurring dream, and I know that some of my kids would, too, of just walking through that house and looking at everything. But you're not there to stay. You're just walking through the house. And I would just see it all. The play room where the kids played, all their toys they'd had through all the years. The lofts that they slept in. I could just see everything. And the one thing that I would always be focusing on in my dreams would be grabbing that Swiss Army knife while I'm going through the kitchen really slow, and grabbing that Swiss Army knife so I had it with me.

Alex Blumberg

Are you serious?

Eileen Jarvis

I'm serious. I'm very serious.

Molly Jarvis

I didn't really realize that we were going to have to leave there forever.

Alex Blumberg

This is the oldest girl, 19-year-old Molly Jarvis.

Molly Jarvis

I kind of figured we were going to be able to go back in a few days. That's what I figured. I was thinking, where are we going to stay for a few days until we go back?

Alex Blumberg

The boat that would eventually be their home was at that point at a dock in the Annapolis Yacht Club. The club was planning to saw it up, sell it for scrap, but when Ron asked about it, they said they'd sell it to him instead for $5,000. It was full of holes, half rotted out. Exchanging a cramped attic for a dilapidated boat that barely floats might not seem to be such a great trade, but the day the Jarvises finally moved in was one of the happiest in a long time. They patched the holes with tar and plywood, stowed all their stuff in the hull, and had a friend tow them to what would become home for the next two years, down the bay to a marina called Backyard Boats. Manager Ginger Griffith.

Ginger Griffith

Right there, what looks like a big slip from here? That's where they pulled in when they first came here. One of the guys in the yard came in the office and said, "Ginger, there's a boat here wants to be hauled, but I think you'd better look at it." I said, "OK," so I came out and I really walked down to just about where we are now. So, what, 50 feet from the dock? And I just took one look at that and said, in my heart, "What a sight that is." It was leaking. They had pumps going on it, probably four or five pumps running full-time to keep it floating. The family looked tired. And I thought, a mother of all those children on that boat. Thank god it's not me.

It just touched me, right away, seeing them. I can't see how it wouldn't touch anybody if they could have seen them that way. You could tell that this was not a family at its best.

Alex Blumberg

The Jarvises were not the typical Backyard Boats customer. For one thing, most customers didn't bring their boat in for repairs with their entire eight-person family aboard. For another thing, most customers went home after the boat was hauled out of the water and placed on jacks in the repair lot. They didn't do what the Jarvises did, which was climb aboard the boat, suspended on its jacks, and proceed to live on it while they repaired it.

It was cramped in there. The three girls slept in a room the size of two refrigerator boxes, too low to stand in, even if you're a 12-year-old girl. The planking was all in the process of being replaced, so there were holes in the hull which they covered with plastic tarps. They bathed in a shower they rigged up under the boat behind makeshift plywood walls. And for two years, they lived without the slightest bit of privacy from each other. They couldn't make a move without everyone else in the family knowing about it. But none of this bothered them. 19-year-old Molly and her 17-year-old sister Lily explain what did.

Molly Jarvis

There was people. There was lots of people, which wasn't a normal thing in West Virginia. Because we used to be back in the woods, and all of a sudden, we were right in the middle of town. Everything was different about it. Everything.

Lily Jarvis

You'd see different people every day. That was not normal. We had regular friends, and it was the first time we could walk down the street to your friend's house. It was like we had company every day.

Alex Blumberg

What was it like going over to your-- did their parents ever ask you, what do your parents do, and that sort of thing?

Lily Jarvis

People ask you, you know, "Why did your parents sell their farm in West Virginia just to live on that ratty old boat?" "Oh, I don't know. They just like boats."

Alex Blumberg

And what did you say?

Lily Jarvis

I don't know. You just kind of talk your way out of it. just be vague.

Eileen Jarvis

That was hard. But that just can't be casual conversation. I was just always afraid of getting someone else in trouble.

Ginger Griffith

To the best of my knowledge, no one knew anything about any details of their past.

Alex Blumberg

Again, Backyard Boats manager Ginger Griffith.

Ginger Griffith

In fact, let's see. After it was a long time, it became very normal, we just didn't think anything other than the fact that maybe they were sort of like hippies and enjoyed living in their boat under the primitive conditions, that that's what they chose to do. We even forgot about the fact that there may have been a story behind this, and just kind of accepted that that's the way they wanted to live. And if people were to ask, we'd say, "Oh, they're fine. They just like to live like that."

Alex Blumberg

Over time, the Jarvises played a larger and larger role in the community. Eileen got a job helping Ginger manage the office at the marina. The oldest boy, Yancy, started working as a rigger. And his brothers Asa and Cy were hotly sought after to race other people's boats. The girls were still home-schooled, but they babysat and got jobs detailing boats, running the fuel dock. The Jarvises had taken the classic fugitive trajectory and reversed it. They hadn't fled civilization for isolation. They'd been flushed out of isolation and they could only get away by blending back into civilization.

Alex Blumberg

What was it like becoming friends with more typical American kids?

Molly Jarvis

It was OK. It really wasn't that different. I didn't think it was that hard.

Alex Blumberg

It wasn't different at all? They go home to their house, they watch their TV, and you go home to a boat and roll out your bed? That wasn't different? You didn't feel like it was different?

Molly Jarvis

It was just what we did, so I just thought that was normal, I guess.

Lily Jarvis

Some kids live in houses and some kids live on boats. Some kids live in treehouses.

Alex Blumberg

The other thing that's amazing to me is that you were doing this at the age when-- like, when I was 12 or 13, that was the worst-- that was when I was most susceptible to peer pressure, and when I felt most like an outcast. And when I felt like I was different than everybody and it was a horrible feeling. And here you were, actually different than everybody, but you didn't feel that way?

Molly Jarvis

No, none of the kids were mean to us or anything. Nobody was ever mean to us, never. No, we didn't feel weird. We knew we were different, I guess. But we didn't feel like we were inferior to anybody.

Alex Blumberg

I should mention here another fact about the Jarvises. They're all, from the oldest boy to the youngest girl, beautiful. The girls have silky long blonde hair. The boys are tanned, high-cheekboned, and muscley. If there were a movie version of their story, it might be the only film in history where the Hollywood actors are actually less good-looking than the people they're portraying.

Combine this with the fact that they're all incredibly talented, they're unfailingly polite, good-natured and thoughtful, they seem to have no familiarity with adolescent angst, and that for years they emerged this way each morning, radiant and glowing, from within the hull of a half-built boat on jacks in a gravel repair lot, you can see why people are impressed. Here's Ginger Griffith.

Ginger Griffith

They just were an inspiration. I mean you'd just think, what an ideal family. Wouldn't it be neat to have a family that involved with each other and concerned? I mean, the little girls were making baskets and painting pictures, and it was all so good. And the mother would take time to acknowledge what they were doing and to advise them or praise them or whatever. And all in such a positive way that the girls would just skip out of here inspired to do even more. It was wonderful.

Alex Blumberg

After two years at Backyard Boats, the sharp spike of adrenaline that every Jarvis felt at the sight of a flashing blue light had softened into a dull jab. The boat was beautiful, all hand-carved wood, and two months away from being seaworthy. And the Jarvises themselves were two months away from disappearing onto the sea. And then they got a call from Ron's sister. The FBI had threatened to put her in jail. She'd had to tell. They were on their way. Once again, the Jarvises grabbed what they could and left.

Molly Jarvis

I just figured we were always going to live like this.

Alex Blumberg

Again, the oldest daughter, Molly.

Molly Jarvis

I thought we were always going to almost get caught, just like we always did, and then always get away. That's what I figured. I didn't think they were ever going to get caught. I didn't think that was ever going to happen.

Eileen Jarvis

We haven't been here since probably '97.

Alex Blumberg

What are we looking at here?

Eileen Jarvis

We're looking at our treehouse, our other home sweet home.

Alex Blumberg

I'm standing in the middle of a cypress swamp on the Suwannee River in western Florida with five of the eight Jarvises. They've brought me here to show me one of the last places they lived during their life on the run.

Eileen Jarvis

Are the floors rotten, Molly?

Alex Blumberg

The treehouse is about 10 feet off the ground, suspended in the Vs of two large oak trees. Ron built it out of swamp cypress himself, using only a hand saw. It took him one month. We go up a staircase built of unfinished cypress branches lashed together. Inside, it rivals anything you've seen on Gilligan's Island.

Eileen Jarvis

This is the living room. We had a chair here and we had a settee here and another chair in here somewhere. This held all our fruits and veggies, this hollow log. And over here, Ron had built a fireplace.

Molly Jarvis

We found this picnic table top floating down the river too.

Eileen Jarvis

Floating down the river. And this was a find, a table top, so we brought that up here and Ron made this bar for us so we could eat around it.

Alex Blumberg

The Jarvises only lived in the treehouse for two months before a nosy game warden forced them to move on again. From there, they went back and forth around Florida. They were living on their boat in a marina in Saint Augustine when marshals finally caught them. Eileen says that they'd felt for months that they should move on, but that life had gotten comfortable, the boys with their own boats, everybody working a good job, the family all together. When agents finally did show up, it wasn't a surprise, really. Eileen went to jail for three months, Ron for a little over two years.

It's surprisingly beautiful in the swamp. The river is wide and there's herons flying and nesting all along it. The girls swim and splash in the water. Eileen tells me that their years on the run have affected each of her children differently. And once it gets dark, while she and the girls go and prepare dinner, I talk to her youngest boy, Cy, who's 21, and whose outlook differs quite a bit from his sisters and mothers about what he's learned since the family first fled West Virginia.

Cy Jarvis

We really didn't know how people were. And people are basically beasts. Because most people aren't very friendly. Of course, we were lucky there. At Shady Side, a lot of them people were basically friendly people. They were primitive thinkers, but they were real friendly and they were nice people, and most of them were just out to help instead of out to get you, they were out to help you. And during winter time, we didn't have no money, and we didn't basically have no walls around us because they were all so rotten. And people were all the time coming by and offering us heaters and blankets and all kinds of stuff. So it was nice of them. All the people around there were great. And like I say, they were basically primitive thinkers, but they were really nice people.

Alex Blumberg

What do you mean by that?

Cy Jarvis

Primitive thinkers? What I mean by that is they don't mind. They don't mind eating meat and smoking cigarettes, and they don't mind running over that animal that crosses the road. And they don't mind just shooting something, and they don't mind killing something. And they don't mind driving their diesel boats all over the place and spilling motor oil in the water. And the words they say, they're pretty much foul. And the stuff they discuss don't need to be discussed around kids and family, and don't need to be discussed, period. That's what I mean by primitive thinkers. Just not really understanding what right is and what wrong is. They don't know the difference between the two.

Alex Blumberg

Primitive thinker-- is that your term or is that your dad's term? Or is that something that--

Cy Jarvis

That's my term. That's what I've learned.

Alex Blumberg

The rest of your family doesn't seem to feel this way exactly.

Cy Jarvis

They don't seem to feel this way because-- I don't know, they watch a little bit more TV than me and they listen to more radio. And I'm not attacking them when I say it, but yeah, they're primitive thinkers. And it's not like I made this stuff up. I just deal on a level of right and wrong.

Alex Blumberg

How did you come by your notion of right and wrong?

Cy Jarvis

I didn't come by it. It's right and it's wrong. There's not two different rights and there's not two different wrongs.

Alex Blumberg

But I mean, how did you figure it out, then? How do you explain the fact that other people don't know it and you do?

Cy Jarvis

Well, what I see as being wrong is what has happened to my dad. That's what I see as being wrong. They can come into your house with guns and point the guns at you and take what's yours and do whatever they want. They can come into your house and they can stomp their cigarette butts out on your carpet. And they can pull all your clothes out and throw it on the floor. And they can go through your cabinets and dump flour on the floor, and your oatmeal and everything on the floor just to make a mess. It's not like you're hiding something in the oatmeal. Why do they need to do that? And they can kick down your doors and break out your windows, and they can walk through your house, and they can put anything they want in their pockets.

For what reason? Because he grew some marijuana and smoked marijuana? Did he force anybody else to smoke this marijuana? No. He didn't, did he? Was he shooting anybody over this marijuana? No, he wasn't. He was teaching us kids how to build furniture and how to be real men. And he had time to do all that because he smoked the marijuana and he had time to sit and think about what he had to do. And so what happened to him was wrong. That's what happened to him, the wrong thing. What he was doing was right.

Alex Blumberg

Most of the family wouldn't maybe put it the way Cy does. But they all claim some version of the separation he feels from the world at large. Molly and Lily say they feel older than everyone they meet. Eileen says she sometimes feels she's on the outside looking in. The trade-off is what they do have, a fierce, unyielding, unbreakable devotion to each other.

Alex Blumberg

All right, so you've got a song for us?

Cy Jarvis

No, I don't really know any songs. I can only really make noise. [GUITAR MUSIC]

Alex Blumberg

When I visit, the Jarvises are living on the boat they first bought in Maryland, the one they rebuilt themselves, made beautiful. They all gather in the galley most nights to eat. A lot of times, Cy and Yancy will get out their guitars. Asa plays the drums and the family sings. There they are in this self-contained world they've built themselves by hand, together. From the boat, you can see the shoreline of the United States of America.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg. Coming up, two people try to nudge themselves out of limbo and closer to everyday American life. Guess just how many of them succeed. Just guess. In a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. What's French For "Steeee-rike Three?"

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, American Limbo, stories of people who have accidentally ended up outside the grid of normal American life. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, What's French for "Steeee-rike Three?" This is the story of an American in Paris who chose to live in Paris, but decided at some point that he wanted to nudge his kid toward a little more American-ness. But when one does this kind of thing, it's on instinct and it's a guess, and you cannot tell how it'll come out. Here is that dad to tell the story, Adam Gopnik.

Adam Gopnik

I don't really remember how we first thought of the rookie. I think it may have been right after I saw my son, Luke, who had just turned three, playing with a soccer ball in the Luxembourg Gardens. It wasn't just the kicking that scared me, but the kind of nonchalant, bend-of-the-body European thing he did as he rose to meet the ball with his head. Next he would be wearing those terrible shorts and bouncing the ball from foot to foot, improving his skills. He had been born in New York, but he had no memory of it. Paris is the only home he knows.

"You want to have a catch?" I said, and he looked at me blankly.

That night at bedtime, I said, "Hey, I'll tell you about the rookie." It was 8 o'clock. The sun was still out, but the sounds had become less purposeful. You could hear small noises, high heels on the pavement, and though this is a pleasant times to lie in bed in Paris, it is not an easy time for a small boy to go to sleep.

I had been drawing storytelling duty for awhile, and had made increasingly frantic efforts to find a hit, like a network programmer back home massaging the schedule. A story about a little boy who turned into a golden fish in Venice hadn't gone anywhere, and a remake of The Hobbit had done no box office at all. This story, though, rolled out easy.

The rookie, I said, was a small boy in Anywhere, USA, in the spring of 1908. Out walking with his mom one day, he discovered that he had an uncanny gift for throwing stones at things. He picked one up and threw it so hard that it knocked a robin off its perch a mile away. And then after his mama chided him, he threw another one, just as far, but so softly that it snuggled into the nest beside the bird without breaking an egg.

His parents, a little sadly, but with a sense of obligation, immediately sent him off on the train to New York to try out for the New York Giants and their great manager, John J. McGraw. All he took with him was a suitcase that his mother had packed for him, filled with things, including his bottle, that he thought might be useful in case of an emergency.

He got out at Grand Central, took a cab all the way uptown to the Polo Grounds-- his mother had told him to take taxis in New York-- and asked to see John J. McGraw. McGraw, staccato and impatient, was at first skeptical, but he finally agreed to watch while the kid threw, because he was so polite and the letter from his parents was so insistent, and because, well, you never know. He called Big Six, the great Christy Mathewson, out of the dugout to watch, and Chief Meyers, the great American Indian catcher, to get behind the plate. The Chief came out, with a weary, crippled, long-suffering gait, and squatted.

I thought of the Chief as a creased veteran, though the real Chief was still in his 20s, and not yet even a Giant.

The little guy walked to the mound, tugged at his cap-- not a baseball cap, the cap of his knickers suit-- and let fly. Everybody was impressed, to put it mildly. "Hey, Mr. McGraw," cried the Chief, "I ain't never seen speed like that. And then he got movement on it, too."

"Well," Matty said mildly, peering at the tiny, [? dowdy ?] figure on the mound. "When you think about it, he's more or less got to have that upward movement on his fastball, don't he?" My ideas of credible 1908 ballplayer dialogue were heavily influenced by Ring Lardner. McGraw shrugged, since tryouts were one thing and baseball was another. But in the end, he decided to give the kid a start that Sunday in a big benefit exhibition that the Giants were playing at the Polo Grounds against the Detroit Tigers.

I stopped. Outside, we could hear the steady stop-and-start rhythmic passage of the sanitation workers. Impossibly chic, in grass-green uniforms with a white stripe running down the side, the men of the [SPEAKING FRENCH] came down our street every night to collect the garbage.

"Go on," Luke ordered, muffled but sharp from under his covers. "Stop thinking."

In the benefit exhibition that Sunday, I went on at last, the big bathtub-shaped stadium with its strange supporting wide beams, was packed with fans come to see the three-year-old phenom. The rookie took the mound, throwing smoke. And fans, it looked as though it might be a first, a perfect-perfect game. 27 men up, 27 K's, until in the sixth, the rookie had to face the terrible Ty Cobb.

Now, I realized I had a problem here, since Cobb should have been batting cleanup from the start. I explained that he'd been late suiting up, because he insisted on extorting extra payment from the Tigers management for playing in a charity exhibition, even though everybody else was playing for free. Cobb was just like that, I explained. Terrible.

The crowd quieted as the confrontation neared. Cobb came to the plate, sneering and drawling. "Hey, baby," he called out, taunting the rookie. "Looks to me like you're nothing but a baby."

Luke's whole body stiffened. If there was a worse insult, he hadn't heard it. Jackie Robinson, in his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, had never been called a name so vile.

Shaken, the rookie lost a bit off his heater. It was still blazing, though, and Cobb just got a piece of it, dribbling it towards first. He took off, and the rookie, who knew his assignments, dutifully scampered over to cover. Cobb came in hard, hard as he could, his spikes sharpened to razor tips, and stamped down on the rookie's three-year-old foot. Safe. Stinking, rotten way to get on base, but safe all the same.

Shaking off a couple of tears, the rookie went back to the mound. "Hey, I reckon you're a crybaby. Hey, everybody, look at the crybaby. Looks to me like you're nothing but a crybaby," came the taunting Georgia drawl from first, and the rookie pitched out of trouble. But the pain lingered, and in the top of the ninth, the Giants having pushed over one run on a hit-and-run executed by the Chief, he made a few mistakes, walked a couple of batters-- hey, he was three-- and left himself with the bases loaded and the Georgia Peach due up again.

The crowd was going crazy and now the taunting began again, worse than ever. "Hey, baby. Hey, crybaby. Why don't you cry some more, crybaby?"

The rookie knew what he had to do. In the dugout, he had taken his old bottle from the suitcase his mother had packed for him when he went off to join the Giants, just in case, and stowed it under his cap. Now he dripped a couple of drops of milk onto the seams of the baseball, the rookie's soon-to-be-notorious bottle-ball. It was before they brought in the rule against foreign substances on the ball, I explained. The rookie was playing fair.

"Hey, when are you guys going to go to sleep?" Luke's mother's voice came from the other room.

"Soon," I called back abruptly. The lights of the traffic on the Boulevard Saint-Germain came in through the windows, but I didn't even draw the curtains.

The rookie stretched and threw, and the bottle-ball dipped and twisted and dipped and twisted again, curving all the way out to the third base line and then cruising halfway towards first before finally slipping in, softly and cleanly, right across the plate, a strike at the knees. Ty Cobb had time to take a really good cut. He had all day, but the pitch had him so fooled that he didn't just whip, he twisted himself in knots while he whipped, real knots. His whole body pulled around like a wet washrag, hands ending up back of his butt.

Luke chuckled deeply at that.

"Steeee-rike three," cried the umpire, and the bleachers of the Polo Grounds went nuts. The rookie trotted off the field. "Who's the baby now, Mr. Cobb?" he asked with quiet dignity on his way back to the dugout.

My kid sat up-- shot up-- in bed, like a mechanical doll, as if he had a spring hinge right at his waist.

Christy Mathewson, I went on, didn't say anything. No, that wasn't his way. But he went over as the rookie came into the dugout, took off the rookie's cap, and mussed up his hair. Outside the crowd wouldn't leave. They just chanted, "Rookie. Rookie."

Now the only sound from Luke's pillow was of short, constant breathing. I had the uncanny knowledge of a kind of silent excitement, the certainty-- I had witnessed it once or twice on opening night at a theater, though I had certainly never created it before myself-- that what we had here was a hit. The terrible Ty Cobb had called him a baby, and he had thrown the bottle-ball, and then who was the baby?

That night, I went on, the rookie was offered a contract with the Giants, and the team got on the overnight sleeper to St. Louis, heading out to steamy Sportsman's Park. The Chief tucked the rookie into his berth, and before he went off to play pinochle with the guys, asked him, roughly, "You OK, rookie?"

"I'm OK, Chief," the rookie said. And then he listened to the sounds of the train tracks clacking and the whistle blowing and the other ballplayers in the next car, laughing and playing cards, before he fell deep asleep somewhere outside Columbus.

"I'm OK, Chief," Luke repeated. And then he did something he had never done before, or at least not in my presence. Without negotiation or hesitation, without tears or arguments or requests to come and sleep in the big bed, he rolled right over and fell asleep.

From then on, we had a story about the rookie every night. After a couple of months, I began to wonder, what picture did he summon up when, night after night, he heard the words "Polo Grounds," "full count," "all the way to the backstop?" Not an inexact picture. No picture at all. He had never been to a baseball game, never seen a bat or a glove, never been inside a ballpark or even watched a ballgame on television. No one Luke knew played baseball. No one talked about it. The words and situations were pure language, pure abstract lore.

The cliches I rolled out-- "he had all day," "steamy Sportsman's Park," "no foreign substances on the old pill"-- what did he think, what did he see, when he heard them? I knew that he wanted to hear the words as much as I needed to say them. He zipped through dessert to get to bed every night, but what did the words mean to him?

I had spent my adult life believing that storytelling depends on the credibility of its details. Now, finally, I had made up a story that someone liked, and the details had no credibility at all, no existence except as sounds. You are supposed to use a word, I had always been taught, to point at a thing, and hope that the thing will somehow end up pointing at something bigger-- a feeling, a state of mind. But now I said "Polo Grounds" or "full count" and the words called up in my son a powerful reaction. But what of that second range, where the words were supposed to become things, even just images in his head?

There is, I think, a force in stories, words in motion, that either drives them forward past things directly into feelings, or doesn't. And the trouble is, you don't know which way they're going until you've already taken your swing. Sometimes the words fly right over the fence and all the way out to the feelings. Make them do it one time out of three in private, and you've got a reputation as someone who can play a little, a dad who can tell a decent bedtime story. Do it three times out of five in public, and you're Mark McGwire or Dickens.

After about a year of telling the rookie story, I went to New York to give a talk and I turned the trip into a literary mission, a sort of rookie-collecting expedition. I wanted to bring home tangible evidence of something that, as a matter of fact, had never taken place there. I bought a baseball encyclopedia and a box of books on the Cobb era, and borrowed a Ken Burns video on baseball. A vintage Giants cap, child-size, which I thought would be the hardest thing to find, turned out to be absurdly easy. The past is so neatly packaged now that I just walked into a memorabilia store on Lexington Avenue and found a replica cap, no problem.

When I got home to Paris, I put on the video from the PBS baseball series, which I had never seen. And we watched all those flickering, over-frantic little ghost figures racing around. There was Ty Cobb, looking appropriately evil. There was John J. McGraw. There were pitching and batting-- I realized from Luke's comments that he had them the wrong way around. There was base-running. There was Christy Mathewson, and then a picture of Matty, handsome and as short as ever, slowly dissolving into a picture of a small, serious boy with blond bangs, wearing a baseball cap and a perfectly sober expression, going into a pitching windup.

I still have no idea who he actually was. It's not Christy Mathewson's kid. I found a picture of him and he had darker hair. But of course Luke knew who it was perfectly well. "There he is," he said. "Rewind it." We watched Matty and the rookie appear again, and then he told me to turn it off.

He was uncharacteristically silent for the rest of the afternoon, but before dinner I heard him talking to his mother in the bath. "He had his hands up like this," he was saying chattily. "I don't know why."

That was enough excitement, enough reality, for one day, I thought. And it wasn't until a week later that I tried out on him a picture of the Chief, an honest-to-god picture of Chief Meyers, looking just as he ought to look. "Hey, look. That's the Chief," I announced proudly, opening the old baseball encyclopedia at his bedside.

He paused, looked at the picture, looked back at me, peering in for a moment. And then he got a funny guilty smile on his face that I had never seen there before. "Oh," he said, peering intently at the picture. "I thought it was his mother."

"What do you mean?" I said, surprised.

"I mean I knew it was, but I thought it was. I mean, I knew it was a man, but I thought he was the mother," he concluded, stumbling a little. "I thought it was his mother."

He actually blushed, and I could sense that there was something at once so deep and so important going on in what he was trying to tell me that he feared at some other level it would seem silly. In his mind's ear, he could hear Ty Cobb calling, "Baby."

"But remember?" I said. "His mother packed the suitcase for him. He had the mama's suitcase."

"I know. I know that," he said quietly, stubbornly. "I can't-- I just thought--" He held his hand up to his head and he tried to smile. "I-- I thought it was a girl. I thought it was his mama."

I got it then. He knew that the word, the Chief, stood for some kind of older man, but whether he could have summoned up this kind of older man, a bearded, grizzled 40-ish American Indian catcher with boozy breath, I'm not sure. But the symbolic place that he occupied was so deeply maternal that it was-- well, he was his mother.

What had been lulling him sleep, night after night, I realized, was not the all-purpose fit. These words pointed directly to the symbol, and it was the obvious one, but it wasn't my symbol. The trouble with mental catch is that the ball you throw changes in midair into another. Staring down into the Polo Grounds, what he had seen was what he needed to see, and that was the same face he saw at every window. His mama had been there at his bedside all along, and I had been too slow a reader of my own fiction to spot her lurking.

The rookie story goes on, but over time, at Luke's urging, it became more and more detached from baseball. The rookie entered a gothic phase as the little boy began to demand scary rookie stories, with a real witch-- not Ty Cobb dressed up like a witch, not the Chief dressed up like a witch, a real witch. Over time, inside the rookie's suitcase, the one his mama packed the day he left for New York, the rookie has come to find a complete dictionary of the animal languages, a saxophone, a design for the first car radio, compressed early rocket ship refueling pills, a map of Paris, a window defogger, a time machine, a map of a secret route to the South Pole, and reindeer medicine for Santa's team. The story belongs to Luke now.

I don't think about the rookie as much as I used to, but when the bombs began to fall in Serbia I began thinking about that other Serbian conflagration in 1914, and everything it had led to. And I realized with a start that by making the rookie three years old in 1908, I was leaving him unprotected to the century's horrors. Then I did a quick calculation and realized that he would have been far too young for the first World War and just too old for the second. The rookie was lucky that way, I think.

Luke and I tried playing a little catch this spring in the Luxembourg Gardens, but gave up after about five minutes. For a present around that time, he asked us to make him his own [SPEAKING FRENCH] marked with a [SPEAKING FRENCH] a press pass from the government like the one I have, so that he could pretend to cut through red tape. We made him an impressive-looking fake French government document, with a black and white photo and lots of cryptic official-looking stamps.

At bedtime now, before the rookie story starts, he likes to act out a French bureaucratic drama. I play a functionary guarding an entrance to something or other, who scowls at him until he haughtily flashes his carte. And then I let him pass with many apologetic, "Ah, Monsieur. I did not recognize--" grimaces and shrugs, while his mother acts out the role of irate bystander, fuming in line as the privileged functionary serenely passes by. I suppose it's about time we took him home.

Ira Glass

Adam Gopnik's story "The Rookie" can be found in his book Paris to the Moon. He's a writer for The New Yorker magazine.

[MUSIC - "AT HOME HE'S A TOURIST" BY GANG OF FOUR]

Act Three. It's Julie Andrews' World, Sylvia Just Lives In It.

Ira Glass

Act Three, It's Julie Andrews's World, Sylvia Just Lives in It. A few years ago, on her 18th birthday, Sylvia Lemus came onto our program and talked about her life. Her parents are immigrants, very traditional, from Mexico, and they wanted her to get married right away, have babies. But Sylvia grew up in this country and she thought like an American girl. She wanted to go to college, get an interesting job, all that before she started a family. Here's what she said at the time.

Sylvia Lemus

My mom has lived in a box all her life. And I sometimes-- once in a while I'll escape from the box. And sometimes I'll just try to climb out, and she's pushing me in. Or I'm trying to poke a hole in the box and she tapes it right back up.

Sometimes we get into fights, and I tell my mom, I'm not like my cousins. I'm not. My cousins are 19, 18, and they're already pregnant or married. I'm like, is that what you want me to do with my life?

Ira Glass

At that time, Sylvia had a perfectly clear picture of what she wanted her life to be. She'd work in a big open office, with lots of computers and gadgets, doing computer animation on films like Jurassic Park and Men in Black.

Sylvia Lemus

You know, sitting in front of the computer and doing all these things on the computer, and animating and getting really frustrated because it takes me like six months to do a five-second little scene. And I'd have an eyebrow ring or something on, have my hair whatever color I want.

Ira Glass

After that interview, Sylvia started hanging around our office, became an intern on our show. And then she went away to college, to a school that she chose because they teach computer animation, the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. She took one of our tape recorders with her and recorded now and then, tape diaries about her experience in college and moments with her friends. We've pulled some clips from the tape, and I talked to her about it all.

Sylvia Lemus

So Shari invited us to a crew party, and there was this guy named Zack who showed us to the boat house. And, oh my god, to a city girl, this was amazing. The boat house had no lighting whatsoever, and above that you see stars. Not city stars, like one or two-- stars. A lot of stars. And I looked up and I was amazed, and the first thing I said-- "Oh, my god, look, there's a box." Apparently it's the Big Dipper or the Little Dipper. I'm not quite sure exactly what it was. And they were kind of laughing at me, because I'm like, "Oh, my god, there's a box. A box was shaped there."

Can I also get a strawberry smoothie with whipped cream? Thank you.

Woman

Biscotti.

Sylvia Lemus

What exactly is it? You know how uncultured I am.

Woman

I know you from Chicago, so--

Sylvia Lemus

I'm just telling you that not everything here is universal.

Woman

Biscotti is just a crunchy biscuit-type thing. Those have chocolate. Some of them have almonds. Some of them are chocolate all together. Don't you remember I brought them in with my Fruit Roll-Ups?

Sylvia Lemus

Yeah, but I didn't taste any. [INTERPOSING VOICES] I didn't taste them.

Woman

I know, but you asked me what it is like if you didn't know.

Ira Glass

Sylvia, do you feel like your friends at school understand you?

Sylvia Lemus

A lot of times, no. I don't think they do. Like, I've never seen The Sound of Music. Is that what it's called? Or something and a chocolate factory? I've never seen any of that stuff.

Ira Glass

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Sylvia Lemus

Yeah. I've never seen any of that stuff. And I'm just used to going to an all-ghetto school where everybody speaks Spanglish and a lot of music is blaring outside our window 24/7. And they're like, "Oh, my gosh, she's so different. She's not like what we grew up with."

Woman

Where's your sister?

Sylvia Lemus

My sister's that little one with the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] New Kids on the Block shirt. That's when she was six. Now she's 13.

Woman

No, [? I mean ?] real pictures of her.

Sylvia Lemus

Yeah, I do have real pictures of her.

Woman

Oh, I want to see her.

Sylvia Lemus

Why? That's her right there. And that's my brother and that's me. These are my grandparents in Mexico.

Woman

Oh, wow. They look so original. That looks so cool.

Sylvia Lemus

They look original? What do you mean, original?

Woman

I don't know. They look cool. I like their outfits and everything, very traditional.

Sylvia Lemus

Yeah, that's very Mexican outfits.

Woman

Yeah, that's what I'm looking for. Traditional, not original.

Ira Glass

Have there been classes that you've really loved?

Sylvia Lemus

I liked my visual anthropology class, because for the first time in a really long time, I felt like I can do what everybody else did, study the night before and get the exact same grade. That was the only class where I felt like I didn't have to try as hard and get less grades. I tried exactly the same as they did and I got the exact same grade. I loved that class.

Ira Glass

You're saying you loved it because it was kind of easy.

Sylvia Lemus

Yeah. And I loved it because we had to do an ethnographic film, and we decided to shoot drag queens. And it was the best thing ever. I went out all the time. Like the last two weeks, we went out all the time to shoot at the Miss Gay Rochester pageant. And we shot them at their clubs and them dressing, and I came home drunk all the time. It was the funnest thing ever. I think that's why I like the class so much, because I always got drunk at the end.

Ira Glass

How hard were your actual classes for you?

Sylvia Lemus

They were hard. It just seemed like no matter how hard I tried, I was never able to compete with them. I think a lot of it has to do with-- it's obvious that they went to better schools than I did. And I went to-- I don't even bother telling them that I WOMAN: was one of the top kids in my class. What are they going to say? "You were? What the hell happened?"

Ira Glass

Here's a recording that you made right after you got back to school after going home to Chicago for Christmas break.

Sylvia Lemus

January 2, I went to my cousin's baby shower. Everybody was there when we got there, so I had to go around the whole entire place, you know, greeting everybody. The handshake, the kiss, the hug, the kiss, the handshake. Blah blah blah. It took me 15 minutes to greet everybody, because there was at least 50 or 60 women. So I sat down with all my aunts and cousins, and everybody at that table was married with kids. I was only one without a child or a husband. And so we just like-- it was kind of bad. I mean I just noticed, nobody was in college, nobody was going for a profession. I don't know what to do with them. I really don't.

And I hate that. At Rochester I spend most of my time wanting to be Mexican and wanting to hang out with Hispanic people, and then when I go to my family, I can't. It's like I spend half of my time defending where I'm from and where I was raised and why I was raised where I was. And then I'm stuck here and I'm basically defending something I don't even feel I'm part of.

Ira Glass

Hey, Sylvia, one of the things that happened during your first year when you were away at school is that at some point, you came back home and you went to the baptism of a baby, who was the baby of a cousin of yours.

Sylvia Lemus

Wait, hold on, I'm trying to remember which baptism.

Ira Glass

You have a cousin whose husband's in construction and she works and they have a three-room house.

Sylvia Lemus

Oh yeah, Cristina. OK, so I go to her house. She's 19 and she has a house. I go to her house, and she lives in a very nice neighborhood not that far away from mine. And she works for a bank and she makes pretty good money and she only has a high-school degree. She got married two weeks shy of her 17th birthday. She had her kid when she was 19. And so she's having her daughter's baptism, and she has this beautiful house, this three-bedroom, attic and basement, house. And it's well-decorated.

And I think-- I'm like, "Hello, this is exactly the things that they tell you not to do, because this is not going to happen. If you get married, you're not going to have a house because out of a high-school degree, you don't really make that much money." But I'm like, why are they able to buy a house?

And all I keep thinking is, oh, my god, I live in Rochester. I'm going to be living in an apartment the size of a closet with a roommate. It was like a backslap. I was already having problems with school, and then I come here and it's like, "Oh, look, we lied."

Ira Glass

Did you feel like all of us who have ever told you that it would be a good idea to go away to college and get a degree--

Sylvia Lemus

Yeah, they're liars.

Ira Glass

Really?

Sylvia Lemus

No, I'm just joking. But sometimes I'm like, I think they lied to me. I think they did. But I know the feelings I'm having right now are just because I'm having problems. But at this point I don't see the happiness I saw when I was in high school. Remember when I told you, I pictured to have this huge office with toys and computers and stuff like that?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Sylvia Lemus

I don't see that anymore. Right now, it seems like it's a scam, that I was fooled into something, that I was naive enough to think that that dream could actually happen, you know?

Ira Glass

Sylvia, do you think that if you quit the life that you're having right now and tried to move back to the neighborhood where you grew up, and meet somebody and have babies and have a house, do you think you could even do that?

Sylvia Lemus

I'd be miserable.

Ira Glass

You'd be miserable.

Sylvia Lemus

No, I'd be miserable.

Ira Glass

Why?

Sylvia Lemus

Because that's not the life I want. That's not the life I want, but this life isn't being very accepting to me.

Ira Glass

So you're kind of stuck.

Sylvia Lemus

Yeah. I am, aren't I? I am stuck.

Ira Glass

Well, time passed again, and two years after that interview was recorded, Sylvia graduated from the limbo that was RIT in 2003. And since then, she's been living in a different kind of limbo in Los Angeles, working various jobs, trying to break into film production. She still sees very similar pros and cons to the choices that she's made. Right now, she works for a multimedia company in Hollywood.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Blue Chevigny and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jonathan Goldstein, and Starlee Kine. Our senior producer, Julie Snyder. Production help from Annie Baxter and Todd Bachmann.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free, 24 hours a day. You know, you can download today's program at our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife.

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, every time he sees me in the hall, he taunts me. He taunts me this way.

Adam Gopnik

Hey, everybody, look at the crybaby. Hey, baby. Hey, crybaby.

Ira Glass

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

Adam Gopnik

Why don't you cry some more, crybaby?

Announcer

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