Transcript

180:

Return to Childhood
Transcript

Originally aired 03.23.2001

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/180

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Fifth grade. It was so long ago. Who can remember that far back? Two whole years.

Kayla Hernandez

I remember all of, like, the old things. Like we used to read the book Harry Potter when it first came out. And we made curtains.

Ira Glass

Harry Potter curtains.

Kayla Hernandez

And they have new curtains now. And I look back at them, and I'm like, wow, you know? It's changed. And I wish it was still there somehow.

Ira Glass

This is Kayla Hernandez, in seventh grade at the Pulaski School in Chicago. She says that she actually visits her fifth grade classroom, Room 211, and her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Chan, fairly often, and reminisces about the past.

Kayla Hernandez

Recently I went through the shelves, and our books are still there. Like Our America.

Ira Glass

You're talking about the book Our America?

Kayla Hernandez

Yeah. You know, reminiscing about when we used to read that book. And how it showed lots of racism.

Ira Glass

Back in fifth grade, she covered her copy of the book with one of those paper book covers with a picture of NSync on it. It was her copy, though they're not allowed to write their name in the front of the books at her school.

Kayla Hernandez

They had numbers, and my number, I think, was like 30.

Ira Glass

So you did find book number 30?

Kayla Hernandez

Yeah. I did. I saw the book and it was just there, without its paperback covering. You know, everything that was mine is not mine anymore. I think that's the hardest thing from switching to another grade, and to another classroom and to another teacher. And there's a new environment and different things to learn, and old memories to leave behind.

Ira Glass

20 years from now, 30 years from now, when you try to remember back to seventh grade, what do you think you're going to remember from this year?

Kayla Hernandez

I think I'll remember barely anything.

Ira Glass

Isn't that kind of strange, though, to think that you're going through all these experiences now that somehow are going to get wiped off the blackboard?

Kayla Hernandez

Yeah. But I even have that experience now. Like I can't remember things from like second grade. Like some things. Like, I remember this kid, he wrote this Valentine card for me, like, you're pretty as a rose. I don't know. Something like that. But I can't remember teachers really well like I used to.

Ira Glass

Do you feel sad about that, or is that OK?

Kayla Hernandez

I feel said about that. Because it's a part of me. It's like you don't even remember what's happened. It's kind of hard. Because it's been a part of you.

Ira Glass

When I asked Kayla which friends that she wouldn't remember at all someday, it wasn't hard for her to answer.

Kayla Hernandez

Cynthia. I'll probably forget Alileni. I'll probably forget Diana and Maria. I'll forget Erica Sorio. I'll forget a whole bunch of people.

Ira Glass

She's not close to these kids or anything. But as she said their names, it was like watching them vaporize or something. Someday they'd just be gone, erased from the history of her life, like they had never been there in the first place.

We forget most of everything, and then sometimes we go back and try to remember. And really, there is no predicting which people and places and moments we'll be able to get back. Diana and Maria? They could still make the cut.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Return to Childhood. What you find and what you do not find when you go back.

Our show today in four acts. Act one. Once More, With Feeling. In which Jonathan Katz answers the age old question, what happens if you return to your childhood home and it's not so nice, and the current owner tries to sell it to you?

Act two. Punk In a Grey Flannel Suit In which a mortgage broker discovers that his old punk band from the '70s is hot in Japan and decides to leave corporate life for a little bit and go back on tour.

Act three. Ich... Bin... Ein... Mophead. A 34 year old man investigates who he was at nine years old, and learns a thing or two that he would just as soon not remember.

Act four. Every day I forget something else. A ten year old explains memory with the help of novelist Nicholson Baker. Stay with us.

Act One. Once More, With Feeling.

Ira Glass

Act One. Once More, With Feeling.

You may have heard of this series on Public Radio called Lost and Found Sound, which looks for old tapes to put on the radio. Well, one of the producers who works with that series, Valerie Velardi, knew a man named Jonathan Katz who loves old tapes. Loves them so much that he says that it just puts him in a good mood just to be around audio equipment. Naturally they got in touch. Katz is also a kind of minor celebrity in his own right. He did a TV series for a while about a cartoon psychiatrist called Dr. Katz.

Anyway, Lost and Found Sound had Katz sit down with another one of the producers, a guy named Jay Allison, to play some of these old tapes of Katz's family. And after they did that, Katz then took his little journey into his childhood a step further.

But I'm getting ahead of the story. Here's a few minutes first of him going through his old childhood tapes with Jay Allison.

Jonathan Katz

K, I'm going to put the headphones on and do some serious time traveling. OK, hit play.

Young Jonathan Katz

[SINGING]

Jonathan Katz

I think even as a kid I knew how cheap tape was. If this was recorded today, there would be phones in the background. Somebody would be getting a fax. Somebody else would be checking their email. The TV would be on. It's kind of sad. Can't hear a kid breathe like this.

Young Jonathan Katz

Boy, am I wasting tape.

Rabbi

Now it gives me great pleasure, on behalf of our entire congregation, to express our very good wishes to Mr. Sidney R. Katz and to Mrs. Katz upon the Bar Mitzvah this morning of their son Jonathan.

Young Jonathan Katz

To the ten thousands of the clans of Israel--

Jonathan Katz

That's me.

Young Jonathan Katz

Verily I give you good doctrine--

Jonathan Katz

I said "verily."

Young Jonathan Katz

Bring us back to thee, oh Lord--

Jonathan Katz

Lohd.

Young Jonathan Katz

Renew our days as of old. [SINGING IN HEBREW]

Jonathan Katz

I have a New York accent in Hebrew, which is pretty tough. Until I did my HBO special, this was the most money I ever got paid to perform live. Just going to move it ahead a little bit, just want to make sure-- whoa. Sorry about that.

Young Jonathan Katz

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] We're desperate.

Girl

Doesn't sound like too much fun.

Young Jonathan Katz

Nah. What are we having for dinner?

Girl

Eatin' food.

Young Jonathan Katz

What kind of eatin' food?

Girl

The kind that people eat.

Young Jonathan Katz

OK. Let's hear this recording, OK?

Jonathan Katz

Oh, man. I have not changed one bit. That's what life is like at my house. We live, we videotape, and then we watch what we just did.

And I have this obnoxious habit now with my daughter and her friends, both daughters. They can just be sitting around with a bunch of friends and I walk in with a tape recorder, and I go, "OK, talent show!" You know, which if you're 17, is pretty uncomfortable.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Katz now joins us from his home studio in Boston. Jonathan, how much taping do you do over the course of the week?

Jonathan Katz

Talent show! You know, I pretty much am always rolling. I'm recording something or listening to something. I'm surrounded by my past on audiotape.

Ira Glass

See, but how many hours of tape do you have there in your house?

Jonathan Katz

I would say-- you know, and it's very hard for me to give you an accurate estimate. But I would say 5,000 hours.

Ira Glass

And how much of it have you actually gone back to?

Jonathan Katz

Well, if I'm sitting in my office in my house writing something, rather than going downstairs and having a cup of coffee, I put on an old reel-to-reel tape and see what I find.

Ira Glass

Let's play one of the recent recordings you've made. Let me just get this queued up.

Jonathan Katz

Now when I see a picture hanging on the wall, it just reminds me of what could have been

Jonathan's Daughter

Same with me. That's what I was going to say.

Jonathan Katz

You know? And I still hope that maybe someday we can get together--

Ira Glass

Same with me.

Jonathan Katz

And make up for lost time.

Jonathan's Daughter

Same with me.

[SINGING]

Jonathan Katz

And thinking of the ways that I could make you stay--

Ira Glass

It's an odd choice of subject for a song to sing with your nine year old daughter.

Jonathan Katz

Yeah. Well, I mean, you could have "The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round" only so many times. You know?

Ira Glass

After digging up those old tapes and talking about them, you decided to get together with your sister Phyllis and return to your childhood home in Brooklyn. And it was it Sheepshead Bay?

Jonathan Katz

Sheepshead Bay was where we lived. My earliest childhood memories were of our house in Sheepshead Bay.

Ira Glass

And how had it been since you'd been back?

Jonathan Katz

I don't think I'd been there since the 1950s. It was a dirt road the last time I was there.

Ira Glass

No.

Jonathan Katz

Yep.

Ira Glass

A part of Brooklyn was a dirt road in the 1950s?

Jonathan Katz

It's true. We lived on a dirt road.

Phyllis

Why don't we turn right at Avenue 1 and go past your school to Ocean Avenue, OK?

Ira Glass

Just explain the setup in the car when you went back to Brooklyn. Who was there?

Jonathan Katz

I was driving with my sister Phyllis and an engineer.

Phyllis

God. Marilyn Maybloom lived down whatever avenue it was.

Ira Glass

So you drove back to the old neighborhood, and you drive to a series of different houses that you had lived in. What was it like to knock on these doors of these different houses, trying to talk your way in?

Jonathan Katz

That was fun. And I think Phyllis has sort of a distorted view of my celebrity. That it was going to impress people, the fact that I used to be a cartoon.

Ira Glass

Right. You say to one person after another, I used to have this TV show. And not a one of them seems to have watched that show.

Resident 1

Who are you?

Jonathan Katz

I'm Jonathan Katz. We used to live in this building. And I had a TV show called Dr. Katz remember a few years back? And I'm here with my sister Phyllis out of sentiment. And we lived on the fifth floor of this building.

Resident 1

Well, if you'll excuse me, we're a little busy.

Phyllis

I'm sorry. [INAUDIBLE] But we'll just go up. Thank you.

Jonathan Katz

I guess the most amazing was this guy out of 88th Street. When he announced that he couldn't let us in because he's on an international call.

Ira Glass

I know. It seems so archaic.

Jonathan Katz

Like he was the first person to make contact with somebody from another country on the phone.

Resident 2

May I help you?

Jonathan Katz

Oh, yes. Hi.

Resident 2

I'm on an international call, so please be quick. What is this about?

Phyllis

We used to live here in 1966 and we wanted to see the apartment?

Resident 2

No. I'm speaking to my wife in Switzerland.

Phyllis

If we were to come back, would it be possible?

Resident 2

Yeah, possibly.

Jonathan Katz

Sorry to bother you.

Phyllis

Everyone makes an international call. It's something to show off about, in his mind.

Ira Glass

You finally get into one of the houses. Was there a part of you that was surprised that-- like, in some way, that other people were living in the house?

Jonathan Katz

Oh, I was shocked. I expected to see our furniture and oddly enough, my parents, who were worried sick. Where have we been?

Ira Glass

But of course, in a way. Because that's the way it looked the last time you were there.

Jonathan Katz

Right. I sort of think of my homes, in Brooklyn especially, as the sets of sitcoms. You know, that they're frozen in time.

But instead we found this guy, Frank Mendez. And the reason he let us in wasn't his sentimentality. It's that it's on the market for $439,000. And it's a dump.

He was very hospitable. He showed us around. We were in the room where we-- Phillis and I shared a room until we moved to Manhattan.

Phyllis

We used to live here.

Frank Mendez

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] and see it.

Phyllis

In 1949. Where's the bathroom you got locked in? It should be over here, eh?

Jonathan Katz

Yeah, when I was a kid, I got locked in the bathroom. They had to call the fire department.

Phyllis

There's your bathroom.

Jonathan Katz

She remembered it as cozy. I remembered it as claustrophobic.

Ira Glass

Let's talk about how you got along with your sister on this trip. I want to play you a piece of tape.

Phyllis

We just passed our old school. There's a house similar to this--

Jonathan Katz

Which school, though? Did I go there?

Phyllis

130. But you wouldn't remember that either.

Jonathan Katz

Do you want to go by there on the way back?

Phyllis

Yeah, maybe. We'll see.

Jonathan Katz

Let's head for our mutual memories first.

Phyllis

But all these houses, there were beautiful private houses here, are not there.

Jonathan Katz

You know, I think if you dissect the dialogue, you can see that neither of us are really taking in what the other person is saying. And I'm pretty much making jokes, and whether or not she hears them, even, forget about gets them--

Phyllis

Where's the theater, is it still here? Do you remember how much it used to cost?

Jonathan Katz

Can you sound a little younger and less Jewish when you ask that question?

Phyllis

That's strange.

Jonathan Katz

We're very competitive. And especially about our pasts. It's almost like revisionists. She wants her version of the past to be the one that's perceived as the truth.

Ira Glass

What's the difference between your sister's version of the past and your version of the past?

Jonathan Katz

I believe that there was a second World War. No. I think that her version-- the big difference was that she and I got along when we kids.

Ira Glass

She thinks that you got along?

Jonathan Katz

Yeah. She thinks that we were a happier family than I think we were.

Ira Glass

I wonder if just that she was happier.

Jonathan Katz

That's possible. It's a nice interpretation.

I expected to find some evidence of a happy childhood. When in fact I couldn't really get along with my sister.

Ira Glass

You know what's so strange about this trip that you took back to the neighborhood, is you're really dealing with the most potent psychological material possible. You're going back to the place where you grew up. You haven't been there in decades. You'd think it would bring back a flood of memories and feelings, and nothing happens.

Jonathan Katz

It is odd. Well, you know, it's a little bit like this TV show that I made. And I'm not trying to change the subject. I did a TV show recently about-- it was called Alpha Force. And the premise was, it was six guys living in a bunker underneath Utah, all specialists in some field. I was an electronics specialist. And we were set up by the government to do covert operations in foreign countries.

But no one called. We're just in the bunker. No one's calling. So I suggested we start a book club. And that's kind of where we are now, at this piece.

Ira Glass

You didn't get what you wanted out of your trip back home.

Jonathan Katz

No.

Ira Glass

What did you want? You said earlier, a part of what you were looking for was just some sign about whether things were happy when you were a kid. What would you have heard on these tapes, or seen in the old neighborhood, that would have given you it?

Jonathan Katz

You know, if I had been able to rip away at the wallpaper in that house, and see the words written by me-- "Sweet God, life is so good." I mean, I look at my 18 year old daughter, and I see how unbelievably alive and happy she is. And I guess that's the feeling that I'm looking for.

Ira Glass

You mean, when you listen back through these tapes?

Jonathan Katz

Yeah. That I'm looking for evidence that I, too used to be that happy and alive. You know, looking at a black and white photograph of that house with my father and my mother, and me and my cousins and my sister sitting on the steps might be more potent than actually sitting on those steps.

Ira Glass

Comedian Jonathan Katz.

Act Two. Punk In A Grey Flannel Suit.

Ira Glass

Act Two. Punk In a Grey Flannel Suit.

David Philp is the president of a mortgage brokerage firm in Beverly Hills. As you might imagine, in Beverly Hills, they handle rather large mortgages. He dresses neatly in beautiful clothes. He has clean-cut hair.

But in the 1970s, in his native England, he was in a punk band called the Automatics, which was never really a big commercial success, but known and respected in the history of the punk movement there by people who care about these kinds of things. And last year, through an odd set of connections, he ended up revisiting his teenage years for the first time by going back on tour in a version of his band in Japan. Here is how something like that happens.

David Philp

I mentioned it to a client. And I said, well, I played in a punk group when I was a kid. And he said, oh, really? And he's interested. And then the next day, he sent me a copy of an eBay auction, and said, is this you?

It was. And I watched this auction. I watched the price shoot through the roof. And then I began to realize, wait a minute! I'm collectible.

Ira Glass

Let's get down to brass tacks here. How much were you guys?

David Philp

I think that one actually went at $48. I particularly liked looking at all those sort of other groups that were going at $0.25. You know, music business offerings along punk lines that I thought, what a load of nonsense, at the time. And it was good to see that their records weren't valued years later. I mean, it was--

Ira Glass

Wow. That history came out on the right side.

David Philp

Yes. That there is a sort of Darwinism in record-collecting.

Ira Glass

What happened next?

David Philp

I went to go see Ricky, the drummer. And Ricky collected everything. And he very kindly lent me these two scrapbooks. So I took pictures and things out of there. I just had a friend put it up on a website. And then I got an email from Fifi in Japan, saying, oh, I play in a Japanese punk rock band, and--

Ira Glass

Fifi's a name of a person?

David Philp

Yes. --and your record changed my life.

Ira Glass

Wow.

David Philp

And he found out through the website that there was an unreleased album. So he asked if he put me in touch with Toshio Iijima of Base Records. We struck up a deal. And then they said, well, would you come over here and play some gigs to, you know, promote?

Ira Glass

So you go to tour. How old are you at that point?

David Philp

45.

Ira Glass

A little bit of grey hair coming in, perhaps?

David Philp

A little bit of grey hair coming in. And I really wasn't sure whether I'd still be able to do it. Because I hadn't played those songs in 22 years. You know? Not in my shower. Not to anyone. I mean, prior to being married-- I mean, I remember dating women for a year who never knew that I played. Had ever played.

Ira Glass

It wouldn't even come up?

David Philp

Wouldn't come up, really. I mean, I'd have a guitar hanging around, but lots of other guys did, too.

Ira Glass

Would you ever pick up the guitar and play for yourself?

David Philp

Yes. I wrote a lot of songs for my dog during this period.

Ira Glass

Really? Some of the titles would be--

David Philp

"We're Going to the Park" was a big favorite.

Ira Glass

To be followed by that hit, "Who's A Good Boy?"

David Philp

"Oh, What A Good Boy," is actually--

Ira Glass

It is?

David Philp

[PANTS] What a, what a good boy!

So we went over there October the sixth. I took my wife. Which possibly was a miscalculation, but-- No, it was a good thing to take my wife, because--

Ira Glass

You were approached by dozens of teenage girls?

David Philp

I was getting stopped on the street.

Ira Glass

So what happened the first night you went onstage?

David Philp

Well, there was just the announcement, the light, and sort of a moment's silence, which lasted forever. And then sort of-- out at the back I heard the opening riff of "When the Tanks Roll Over Poland." And there was just this whole ignition of energy from the club, in front. And all these kids just started going mad. And it just clicked right in.

It felt like I was in an Automatics cover band or something like that. Because it was so long ago, I didn't feel that association as the writer. Because I wrote the material and all that. I didn't have that association as the writer anymore.

Ira Glass

See, but I would wonder, if as you sing the songs, the conviction of the writing returns to you, and you remember all the feelings of it. Did that happen?

David Philp

There's a muscle memory that was there. You know, the movements are all locked in the lyrics and the beat and the parts. And as I played them, they all started to come out, and it was just like being a marionette or something. Here you punch the air. There you sort of bring it, remind the drummer to come down. And there you point at the guitarist for the solo.

Ira Glass

Had you forgotten the thrill of being onstage?

David Philp

Yes. I'd forgotten what it was to have the audience right there.

Ira Glass

Before this, had you ever performed a punk show sober?

David Philp

Never. Well, unless I was taking the antibiotics.

Ira Glass

So much information contained in such a brief sentence.

David Philp

No, it actually was one of the great paradoxes, really, I suppose. That it was great to do it sober.

Ira Glass

Were there moments onstage where you felt your age? where you just thought, oh--

David Philp

Towards the end, you really feel yourself. Because it's like a sauna up there. I mean, there's so much energy going around. And it's louder than bombs.

Ira Glass

So your wife had never seen you do this before. There must've been a part of you which felt pleased that she could see it?

David Philp

Yes. I felt kind of like I'd become this other person. And when I was over there, my life over here seemed to have a sort of almost dreamlike substance. And then of course as soon as I go back, the events in October, in Japan, just began to assume that mantle of dream.

I did three shows. Two in Tokyo and one in Kyoto.

Ira Glass

And all three, just great.

David Philp

All three sold out. In Kyoto, we set a club record for the largest attendance ever. It was so packed, we couldn't actually get offstage. The only way out was over. I had to sling myself over the audience, and they carried me on their hands back through the crowd, and gently deposited me at the stage door.

Ira Glass

So this is your last gig? That was your last gig?

David Philp

Yes.

Ira Glass

And it ended with the entire audience lifting you up, and passing you bodily out, and gently depositing you out of the club?

David Philp

Well, not out of the club, but to the stage door, yes. It was amazing.

Ira Glass

I don't think I've ever really been lifted by a mob of teenagers and people in their 20s. What exactly is that like?

David Philp

Well, in Kyoto, I felt pretty good about it. I'm not sure how I would have felt about it in London in 1977, where the scene was incredibly violent. Whenever you played, you were just as likely to get beaten up as you were to get paid.

Ira Glass

Describe what it was like to come back after the tour.

David Philp

It was hard for me to get motivated again to do my business after the tour.

Ira Glass

It just wasn't as thrilling as being on the a in front of cheering--

David Philp

Well, not many things are. And it was a bit like, sort of, my dad's generation. After growing up as a kid, being fired on in World War II and all that kind of stuff. It was kind of hard getting it up for working in the shipping industry again.

Shortly after I got back, Steve Lillywhite was in town.

Ira Glass

And that is?

David Philp

He was the original producer. And he was also my roommate at the time that all the Automatics stuff was going on. And now he's incredibly successful. He does, like, U2, Dave Matthews, and all that stuff.

And anyway, he was in town, and he had some time. And so we hung out together for a couple of days. And Hunter was off. Hunter, my wife.

So we got to hang out. And we talked a little about the old days. And he told me, Big Paul from Specs does catering. And Nigel from the Members is in Australia now. And Walter from the Heartbreakers, he's a stockbroker in Manhattan.

So I think I got to see, we don't get what we deserve. We get what we get. And we have to be OK with that.

Ira Glass

David Philp, lead singer of the Automatics. Though he has not quit his day job, he's been recording in the studio lately, and hopes to tour Germany in the fall.

Why is it that the Axis powers are the ones who are going for this music right now? What is that about?

Coming up, a famous novelist and actress from the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The impossibility of time and memory and a babysitter. It's action, action, action, believe me, in just one minute, from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Ich... Bin... Ein... Mophead.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Return to Childhood. Stories of people revisiting the past, what they find there, what they do not find there.

We have arrived at act three of our show. And this act is the story of how one of the producers of this program made a decision to return to his childhood. Alex Blumberg went searching for somebody named Susan Jordan, who he and his sister Kate and their parents knew for about a year when he was growing up in Cincinnati.

Alex Blumberg

These are the things that I remember about Susan Jordan. Me and her sitting in the back room, telling her about the day camp I went to that summer. I can't get myself to shut up. "And they had alligators, and snakes," I can hear myself telling her. "And this one time, this one alligator got out, and the counselor had to catch it." And on and on, like that.

Me and Susan flipping through one of those Time Life books. Rock and Roll Through the Decades: The Sixties. She has long, brown hair. She's incredibly skinny. It's 1975. She's wearing bell bottom Levis, a faded jean jacket. She points to a picture of a bloated man in a powder blue rhinestone jumpsuit sitting cross-legged on a stage before a crowd of crying women. "That's my favorite picture of Elvis," she says. This information seems somehow personal and important.

Me and Susan riding in her car. I'm going through this phase where I'm trying to notice things. So when we pull up to a stoplight, I start trying to notice the guy on the motorcycle next to us. He apparently doesn't want to be noticed, especially by a peculiar nine year old staring at him through the passenger window. "What are you looking at?" he sneers. I turn around fast and face the dashboard.

"Did he say something to you?" Susan asks. "What did he say to you?"

"Nothing. He didn't say anything. It's fine. Look! Green light!"

"Tell me what he said. What did he say to you?"

I stay silent. I know if I tell her what he said, she'll get out of the car and try to kick his ass. Which scares me, but comforts me, too.

Susan Jordan was our babysitter. She watched my sister and me every day after school for a couple hours until our parents got home from work. We didn't know any adults like her and we loved her. The summer before I started fifth grade, after being with us for a year, Susan got another job.

The last time I saw her was Christmas Eve 1982. I'm 16, a cashier Thriftway Foods, a supermarket in Cincinnati, where I lived. The place is packed. All 25 registers are going. People are lined up halfway to the back of the store. I look up, and there's Susan Jordan.

She smiles. We talk. She doesn't have many items, so I check them through as slowly as I possibly can. I can't recall one thing we say to each other, although I remember being distinctly disappointed to hear that she's married. She hands me some kind of business card, her husband's, probably, something having to do with the building of redwood decks. She seems happy.

Meanwhile there's a line of last-minute Christmas shoppers mounting behind her. I tell her to hold on, I'll try to get my break, we can catch up. She says great, and steps aside. I keep signaling to my manager, but there's no one to relieve me. Five, ten, fifteen minutes pass. I keep glancing behind at Susan, making apologetic gestures. I can still remember her standing there, holding her one bag of groceries, smiling back at me.

Finally she taps me on the shoulder. "I have to go," she says. "But I come in here all the time. I'm sure I'll see you around."

I worked at Thriftway for two more years. I never saw Susan Jordan again.

It drives me crazy that I never saw her again. If I hadn't run into her at the store, I don't think I'd care. But somehow, having her play what, to me, seemed like a huge role in my life when I was a kid, and then getting just a taste of what it would be like to talk with her as a peer-- I've never forgotten that moment.

I know it's ridiculous. But after years of thinking about her, imagining what she's up to, wondering if she ever thinks about me, I decide to find her.

[DIAL TONE]

[DIALING]

[PHONE RINGING]

I start with my only lead. The one former employer of hers that I know.

Alex Blumberg

Hi mom,

Alex's Mom

Hi Alex.

Alex Blumberg

Do you want to know why I'm calling?

Alex's Mom

I do, I do.

Alex Blumberg

You remember Susan Jordan, right?

Alex's Mom

Susan Jordan. Yes, it's ringing a bell, but I can't place it.

Alex Blumberg

She was our babysitter?

Alex's Mom

Oh. OK. Chicken Legs and Mophead.

Alex Blumberg

One of the many ideas that Susan introduced to our household was the concept of the nickname. I think that's all I want to say about Chicken Legs and Mophead.

I'd gone to my mother to fill in gaps in my memory of Susan, but she didn't remember much more than I did.

Alex's Mom

She was a babysitter that really had more of a relationship with you two than she did with us. She seemed to have a very meaningful relationship with you. Almost the kind of relationship you might have another adult. That was about the extent of it. And she never stayed around when I came home. She was out of there.

Alex Blumberg

What talking to my mom did do was make me look at my childhood memories from an adult perspective. Like for example, what I remembered about her living situation.

Alex's Mom

I didn't get the impression that she was close to her family. I got the impression that she was very much out on her own very young. I think she must have been in the process of breaking with her own parents during that time.

Alex Blumberg

That's, yeah. See, my memory is that like, she was in high school, right? She went to Withrow. But I also remember her living on her-- for some reason I remember her own house. And the reason I thought she lived by herself was we went to her house or her boyfriend's-- we had to go pick something up somewhere, and we were in her car. This big blue Duster, I think it was. And her boyfriend was there. And her boyfriend had let the cats out, and they were gone. And she was furious. And then I got in the car, and then she slammed the door, and I think we peeled out. And he was sort of standing there and trying to reason with her, and we were out of there.

Alex's Mom

Well, what did you think?

Alex Blumberg

It made me-- I think I felt sad for her. I remember thinking-- and this is sort of in retrospect. But I think I had some sort of inkling of this idea at the time, and I'm just sort of now realizing it. But I think-- I remember thinking that he was one of the few people that she had in her life, and she couldn't even really depend on him.

Alex's Mom

Yeah, you were probably right. She was a struggler. And you may have been, at that point, at that moment, her only friend. You know?

Alex Blumberg

My mom didn't have any idea where I could find Susan, which made things difficult. Because A, Susan Jordan is a very common name, and B, it's probably not her name anymore. I called the county court records department to find all the Susan Jordans married in Cincinnati. My mom asked a friend who worked for the city to search all the Cincinnati birth records. I contacted high school alumni associations. I asked friends at high-powered newspapers to run background checks.

Finally, there was one former Susan Jordan who stood out. She seemed the right age. She was married, living in a Cincinnati suburb. She had a couple of kids. Her husband was a lawyer. I got her number from information.

And it wasn't until I sat down to call her that it hit me. A phone call from someone you babysat 20 years ago might not be a welcome surprise, but in fact strange and creepy. Here I am practicing sounding benign.

Alex Blumberg

One, two, one, two. Susan. Is this Susan Jordan? Is this Susan Jordan? Oh god, oh god.

Finally I made the call.

[PHONE RINGING]

Susan Jordan 1

Hello?

Alex Blumberg

Hello. Hi. Is this Susan?

Susan Jordan 1

Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

Hi. My name is Alex Blumberg and I'm calling from a radio program called This American Life. And this is probably a very strange phone call to receive. But I was wondering, first of all, do you remember me?

Susan Jordan 1

No.

Alex Blumberg

It turns out there are a lot of Susan Jordans who don't remember me. A lot. One guy even called his ex-wife, a former Susan Jordan, and then called me back to tell me she'd never heard of me. I was getting nowhere by myself.

So I contacted a professional. One Irving Botwinick, a certified New York City private investigator. Three days after putting him on the case, I got a message saying he'd found her. I called him back.

Irving Botwinick

I called her this morning early. Roughly around 7:30. I said, good morning. I'd like to introduce myself. I said my name is so-and-so, and I'm a licensed private investigator in New York, and I'm looking for someone that used to live in Cincinnati, and went to a particular school there, and her name at the time was Susan Jordan. And she said, that's me. And I said, OK. And I said, do you know anybody named Alex Blumberg. And right away she, yeah. I babysat for him. And the interesting part about the whole thing is she definitely likes you, remembers you, and she's going to call you.

Alex Blumberg

Hello, is this Susan?

Susan Jordan

Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

This is Alex Blumberg.

Susan Jordan

Hi, Alex. How are you doing?

Alex Blumberg

I'm doing OK. How are you?

Susan Jordan

Fine. Did you get my email?

Alex Blumberg

I got your email, yeah.

Susan Jordan

Oh, OK.

Alex Blumberg

Susan and I talked for over three hours on the phone, catching up, comparing notes. She asked about my sister, and kids that used to live on the street, and our old family dog. It was amazing how much she remembered and how much we remembered in common. Even small incidents like the time that we were stopped at the traffic light and I stared too long at the guy on the motorcycle.

Susan Jordan

I think I remember that. Was it on Erie Avenue?

Alex Blumberg

Probably, probably. And you said, did he say something you? And I said, no, he didn't say anything to me. And you said, he said something to you, didn't he? And you were about to get out of the car and kick that guy's ass. I'm sure.

Susan Jordan

I think I can remember your face. I think you were sitting very still with your hands in your lap. Were you afraid?

Alex Blumberg

I was terrified, yeah. I didn't know that he would notice, exactly.

Susan Jordan

Well, don't worry I would have taken him out. I had no fear. I'm telling you.

Alex Blumberg

Do you remember a time-- it was like maybe six or seven or eight years after you babysat us. And I was working--

Susan Jordan

The grocery store? Yeah, I remember. In Norwood, right?

Alex Blumberg

In Norwood, right, at the Thriftway.

Susan Jordan

Yeah. I remember. I guess you-- were you bagging my groceries, but I didn't recognize you?

Alex Blumberg

I don't--

Susan Jordan

And then you told me who you were, and then I did.

Alex Blumberg

Right. Right. I think you said "Mophead."

Susan Jordan

Oh my god. I did warp you. Do people still call you that?

Alex Blumberg

No.

Susan got married when she was still in college and went to work for the phone company as a repair person. She spent the next 20 years or so hanging from a telephone pole, she said. She hated it, but the money was good. Around the time her first marriage ended, she finally got up the courage to quit and find work using her degree. She now teaches at a special school for mentally ill children. She lives in Florida with her second husband and she seems happy.

Of course, when you dive back into the past like this, you find how partial and incomplete your memory is. First there are the facts you get wrong. Turns out Susan had been a college freshman when she babysat us, not in high school like I thought. My sister remembered she'd ridden a motorcycle. Also not true. And the guy who she got in a fight with over the cats, who in my mind was her hairy '70s boyfriend, turned out to be her roommate's boyfriend.

But besides the facts you change, there are the facts you completely omit. That fight over the cats? Susan had forgotten totally that I'd been there. And it was a little strange, because my presence was the only thing she'd forgotten. Other details she remembered fine, even the names of the cats themselves.

Susan Jordan

Possum and Tom. We were hillbillies, remember? But I can't imagine what I took you over there for.

Alex Blumberg

I'm sure it was for-- I think we were just running errands.

Susan Jordan

You're so lucky.

Alex Blumberg

It's funny, because when I-- like, you know, I remember these very particular incidents. And that was one of them. And probably the reason I remember it is because it seemed very significant to you. I think I sensed, as a kid, that it was really upsetting to you because it-- I think I felt at that time that you didn't really have very many people in your life, at that point, who you could trust.

Susan Jordan

Oh, I didn't have hardly anybody. My whole family moved out of town. I had no family at all. I moved out the day I graduated from high school. And I was 17, because I started a year early. I just wanted out. And see, I had found out that I got the scholarship. I packed up that night.

Alex Blumberg

Why did you want to get out so bad?

Susan Jordan

Because my family was dysfunctional. But my mom-- it was pretty bad.

The girl that I lived with-- at that time, she was taking a lot of drugs. And her boyfriend. And every time I would come home, they would always try to get me to take drugs with them or something. And I really didn't do it much at all. And it was really tough to come home.

And I guess I must have been suffering a little bit. I really missed my little brothers and my little sister, and they were gone. And I was, I guess, maybe trying to substitute.

Alex Blumberg

I think maybe that's one of the reasons that I remember, that we remember you so fondly, though. Because I think it worked both ways. I think that we felt-- that that did make you feel closer to us. I think that we responded.

Susan Jordan

Well, I was desparately-- I guess I was looking for a family. But I mean, if only you knew, you probably wouldn't have hired me. But I mean, people are complicated.

Now, what I really wanted to do was spend more time with your mom and dad. But I was terrified. I mean, I just couldn't do it. I was too shy. So a lot of times-- I thought they were asking me to stay longer and talk and I would just run out.

Alex Blumberg

I'm sure they were.

Susan Jordan

And they probably thought, what's wrong with her? But I just couldn't do it.

Alex Blumberg

So you sort of talked to us instead, sounds like.

Susan Jordan

Yeah. I was comfortable around kids because I had kids in my family.

Alex Blumberg

Every time the subject of her hard times came up, I'd hear a subtle hesitancy in Susan's voice. At first I thought it was embarrassment, but that wasn't it, exactly. It wasn't until we'd been talking for hours that I realized what it was.

She was waiting for the other shoe to drop. She hasn't forgotten that her past had happened. She'd just forgotten that I'd witnessed part of it. And her fear became clear, the one that had been gnawing at her our entire conversation, was that I was calling to say she damaged me by exposing me to it.

Susan Jordan

I don't think I was too kind back then. Because there was a lot of turmoil in my life and in my family. And that's what my fear is, that I might have had some kind of negative impact on people. And I know probably I did, on a couple people. But they were my age. But you just want to remember, yeah, I was the babysitter. The kids loved me. Blah blah blah. I would be devastated if I heard anything different.

Alex Blumberg

There are parts of your past you don't want to go back to, parts of yourself you don't want to go back to. And for Susan Jordan, the year of her life that I remember is the year she'd just as soon forget.

And it turns out, I had also done my best to forget what I was like that year. I didn't think of myself this way at all, but Susan Jordan reminded me in the gentlest terms possible. When I was nine, I was anxious and bookish. I was kind of uptight.

Susan Jordan

Not to seem as an insult, but I just kept thinking, these kids don't know how to play. When I went to your rooms, it didn't seem like you had a whole lot of toys. I hope I've got this right. But it just seemed like there were mostly books and more educational things. I mean, I remember you had planets in your room and a chemistry set. And I didn't remember that Kate had hardly any dolls. You didn't seem quite as playful as other kids that I had babysat. Just more serious in general. So mainly, I think that's what I did, was try to play.

Alex Blumberg

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this whole story is how little our memories have deceived us about each other, even if they had deceived us about ourselves. As Susan said at one point, each of us remembered what we needed to about the other. I needed to remember the part of Susan that she doesn't think about much. Her toughness in the face of hardship. She said she mostly remembered a side of my family that I just take for granted-- that it was calm in our house. That there were books. There wasn't much fighting.

Susan Jordan

It was the first time in my life where I had ever seen that people lived differently than the way I lived. And that's what I decided I wanted for myself.

Alex Blumberg

You can try to return to childhood by looking at photos, or visiting the old neighborhood, or listening to recordings. Or you can find someone who knew you back then, someone you haven't seen since. They still carry within themselves a picture of you that's unclouded by the years in between. They'll remember you better than you remember yourself, and you can do the same thing for them.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg.

Act Four. Every Day I Forget Something Else.

Ira Glass

Act Four. Every Day I Forget Something Else.

Let's end our program today with one of the ideas we began it with. Remember Kayla, the seventh greater who is already aware of how she cannot remember her own past? Well, this very idea comes up in a novel by Nicholson Baker, a really great and unusual novel called The Everlasting Story of Nory. The book is told from the point of view of a nine year old named Nory who, at some point, talks about how hard it is to remember things. Actress Michelle Trachtenberg reads a brief passage for us.

Michelle Trachtenberg

That afternoon, Nory tried to reconstruct every tiny detail of the International Chinese School in her mind. She couldn't even remember all the kids in the class. She remembered one very nice girl named Stephie, who left later on, who had a birthday party at her swimming pool where Nory had floundered into the deep end and had gotten about a gallon and a half of water in her lungs and thrown up a tiny bit on the grass.

She gave Stephie a pair of tiny glass slippers wrapped up in probably the best wrapping paper she had ever drawn. She still thought about those glass slippers. They were paperweights that a glassblower made, but they worked as real doll shoes. They were amazingly wonderful.

It disturbed Nory very much to think that all she was going to know about what happened in her life was not very much at all. You can only really remember the things that happened when you were an older child and the things that happened to you now. That is, yesterday, or the day before yesterday, or late last week.

You live your life always in the present, and even in the present, this day, dozens and hundreds of little tiny things happen. So many that by the end of the day, you can't make a list of them. You lose track of them unless something reminds you. Say someone says, remember when you dropped your ruler this morning? And you do remember. But then that is lost in the tangle.

Now, some things you can just accept that you're not going to have the slightest chance of remembering. It would be nice, but you know that it would be basically impossible. For instance, being in your mother's womb, as it's called. Some people thought babies could remember that.

Nory one morning asked Littleguy if he could remember being tucked away in mommy's belly long ago, and he said, "Yes." He said, "It had all things there, in she's tummy. It had things that were called steam trains. It was filled with they. Filled with steam trains, city of Truro, Lord of the Isles, the Mallard. Pictures with steam trains, and toy ones, and jumping things. Filled, filled with they."

Well, of course there weren't toy trains in Nory's mother's womb, unless maybe he was a remembering the small intestine chuffing around. Maybe he was remembering a freight train of food being digested, going around and around him. But probably not.

Still, Nory thought it would be nice if you could think back at least to the age of three. It shouldn't be impossible. Three was older than Littleguy, and Littleguy could understand an amazing number of things. But Nory couldn't go back that far, really, except for a few scribs and scraps. She remembered being eight, and back into being seven, and she went pretty much back to five, and then it teetered a little bit. She only remembered her fourth birthday party, a mermaid party, because she had watched the tape of it a number of times on TV.

One thing, though, she made a point of remembering and passing onto her older self. Every year she got a year older, she said to her parents, "Remember when I was five, I said I was five going on six? Remember when I was six, I said six going on seven? And when I was seven, I'd be going seven on eight. And then going on eight, on nine? Well, now I'm going nine on ten." So each year, the list of years got a little longer. But she remembered the earlier times that way by saying the list over.

Another thing she made sure to bring along every year with her for a long time was the memory that there were many, many little amounts of money that she had found in the car and thought could be hers, but maybe not. Or times her parents had bought her a doll outfit or something when she told him she would reimburse them later, when they got home, with her own money. Or gifts she bought other people with her own money. But borrowing it from her parents, since she'd forgotten her purse. She would skip a week, not thinking to it, then still remember it, and bring it into the next week. Then skip a week, then bring it over.

Finally, she couldn't keep the amount in her head, because it had been added onto and subtracted from so much. And it began to pull at her. And she thought, "I know. I'll pay them $100 when I grow up, and that will surely make up for anything I've borrowed along the way. Then she didn't have to keep track of that.

Ira Glass

Michelle Trachtenberg, who plays Buffy's little sister and a portal and a key on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reading an except from Nicholson Baker's Everlasting Story of Nory.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jonathan Goldstein and myself with Alex Blumberg, Blue Chevigny, Starlee Kine, [? Aaron Yankee ?] and Annie Baxter. Senior producer Julie Snyder, consigliere Sarah Vowell, production help from Todd Bachmann.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who you know, he tells me, he has played Japan, too. He swears.

David Philp

I'd forgotten what it was to have the audience right there.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.