Father's Day '01
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From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Father's Day is here.
I was about 9 or 10, and my parents were splitting up. And we lived in a very small rural town in North Dakota. And my dad, he left. And he left the house and he got an apartment in a city. And he's a farmer. To go and see him somewhere where there was no lawn, or pets, or field, or trees, it was just that, in itself, was strange. Plus the fact that he was there alone.
The first time Leah and her sister and brother saw their dad's apartment after their parents separated, they were uncomfortable. The whole separation made them uncomfortable. They hadn't seen him in weeks. And then there was the apartment itself.
We went up the stairs and it was a three flat behind the grocery store, across from the library. You know, it had that apartment smell of like cabbage in the hallway. And then, we went in and it was like a living room, and then a kitchen, and then a bathroom. And I remember I was like, wait, where's the bedroom? And he's like, that's the great part. You know, this is the cool part. See those doors, go open the doors. And I went over and opened the doors and there's just like metal frame. And that's the bed. And it's called a Murphy bed. I'd never seen one before. He said, you pull it down. Pull it down. And I pulled it down and it made this really awful noise, kind of creaked like, errr. Like it needed to be oiled.
And I hated seeing it. It was like a lumpy mattress at there was a thin blanket on it. It just didn't look like it was very good quality or comfortable. And we would sit on it sometimes to watch TV. And I remember just thinking, this is so weird to sit on a bed and watch TV.
It seemed really pathetic and lonely. And it's lonely and depressing anyway because you know your parents are splitting up. But then to see what your dad is living and it's not nice. It was so incongruous with who I knew him to be. I mean he's someone who belongs outside, working outside, animals, pets, agriculture, all of that. And here he is in this apartment.
I even hated the word "apartment" for a while. I remember, like seeing it in books or reading it somewhere in the newspaper and being like, "Ugh, apartment. My dad lives in an apartment." I was really bothered by that.
Was that the first time you saw him so vulnerable?
Yeah. I mean, he'd always been-- my horse used to get out, escape, and like run down the road for miles. And I wouldn't know what to do. And my dad would just calmly get in the car and go drive. And find him in the bean field and lead him back. I mean, he was my-- who else could do that? But here he is in this apartment. And yet, he seemed kind of cowed by it. The walls closed in on him. So I saw him as just being kind of helpless.
As the years went on, did he resume his full size, or did he stay more like the picture that you had in that apartment?
No, that image was kind of-- he never regained the stature. He never regained the stature that he had before that moment and before that year that he lived there.
Leah was nine. She says that if her parents hadn't split up, she probably would have had two or three more years where she would have kept her dad on that pedestal. Before adolescence would have hit and he would've come down to size anyway.
Your father gets knocked off the pedestal. And that would have happened if they had gotten divorced or not. But it was more jarring the way that it happened.
Do you regret that you lost those years of idealizing him, or do you think in the end it doesn't really matter?
I think it matters. I think that it really-- it was so painful and we were so young. You don't need that. Yeah, to make a difference, you need a few more years. You need to have it come to you on your own terms. I don't think that it's good when it happens in a way that you don't control. And the way that it came about for me wasn't really natural. It was very shocking. It was like one day he was there and two weeks later he definitely was not there.
Here's the story of everyone and their dad. Once, dad was on a pedestal. Then we got older and he came off the pedestal. And with some dads, that happens more or less, gracefully. With others, it is a quick, painful crash from which none of the participants ever recovers fully.
And how a father manages that descent from power, that transition to being human sized with his children, man, that is a test. That is really a test. And a lot of really decent guys have a hard time with it.
Today on our radio program, we bring you three stories of fathers handling their falls off the pedestal as best they can.
Act One of our show, Driving the Divorce Mobile. What happens if your dad goes from hero to tooling around in a Corvette and honking at girls in one month.
Act Two, And if that Diamond Ring Don't Shine. Ian Brown explains the lengths a normal dad will go through to try to do right by his daughter on her birthday. And how this innocent wish led him and his wife to the most corrupt and most questionable birthday stunt they, or any of their friends, had ever heard of.
Act Three, Legend of a Bankrobber's Son. What if your dad was never on a pedestal to start with? And yet, you find yourself still, somehow imitating him? Answers, stay with us.
Act One. Driving The Divorcemobile.
Act one, Driving the Divorce Mobile.
Kids whose parents divorce, like Leah, are often forced to see their parents as human size, all of a sudden, way before they want to. And if there is a separate culture in this country of divorce kids, this story is at the heart of its oral tradition. This story is swapped like trading cards. This story of parents and how they acted in those first few months after they split up. Those first few months when they were perfectly flawed human beings. And to start our show today, we've collected a few about fathers right after the divorce.
Our dad would take my brother and I out on Sundays, like every Sunday. And this one time he took us out and he wouldn't tell us where we were going until we pulled up to this shopping mall that had this fair going on. And so I just remember seeing all the rides and you hear the music of the fair. We're so excited. And he went to the ticket booth and he bought a big wad of tickets. And we just knew this was going to be a great day. And the first ride we went on was this airplane ride where you go around in a circle in an airplane. And you could go up and down and you had a gun. You could fire the gun. It would make this noise.
And I remember, like every time we would circle-- our dad was watching us as we'd circle around. And every time we'd go around, we'd pull the stick shift so we would rise up just as we passed our dad to show off in front of him. And my dad would wave to us as we would go by. It was a really nice moment. And then, I think probably on the third or fourth time around we noticed he started talking to this guy beside him. And we were like wondering, who's that guy that dad's talking to? And then the next time around they were closer together and we were like wondering, who is this guy? What's going on? And then the next time around, the next thing we know this guy's got my dad kind of like in a headlock or he's just got my dad's shirt pulled up over his back. He's like wrestling him and trying to punch him. My brother and I are in shock. And so we kept going around. And like instead of pulling on the stick shift, we were just frozen. We were constantly in the air circling around.
And by now, a whole crowd had gathered. And they're kind of egging everyone on. Like hit him, hit him. And I guess the one image that stays in my mind is seeing my dad's exposed pale, white back because his shirt was up around his shoulders.
And finally when the ride had ended we jumped out of the plane and ran over to my dad. By then I think the crowd had separated the two of them. I remember this lady coming up to my dad saying, oh, you should have punched him. You should have hit him in the face. And my dad was like, oh, you kids want to go on some more rides? And he took us over to this other ride and says, oh, here. Take some tickets. And we were just like, I want to go home now. And just kind of put a damper on the day.
From what my dad was telling us, he said, oh, I think that guy was drunk or something. He thought I was calling him names while we were on the ride. He tried to, I guess, have a moral lesson out of it once we got back into the car. And he was saying, fighting is not the answer kind of thing. Always count to 10. But I think by the time you get to eight, your shirt's already off your back. What are you going to do?
When I think of my father pre-divorce, I think of a very kind of dry, retiring, very British kind of man. Everything he did was very measured, very calm. We're talking about a guy who made muzak his kind of personal soundtrack. He found this radio station out of Vermont that played muzak all day and he kind of wandered around humming. And so I'd hear him wandering around the house-- [HUMMING "THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA"]
But once my parents got divorced, he joined the Y. He started working out religiously. And suddenly he was saying incredibly bizarre things like, you know, I'm going to the gym and I'm going to wail on my pecs.
When he was first divorced, he didn't really have a place to live. It was kind of a hasty divorce. And so he was having us live in his office. And we just visited him on the weekends. And his office consisted of this sort of psychedelic blue couch. And of course, the shaggy rug. And unfortunately, no bathroom. So he would actually get me to go to the bathroom with him on the roof into a Coke bottle. And somehow he made this fun to go out into the roof and practice my aim. It actually became like a fun thing to do that I actually look forward to during the day. And I have to really give him credit for that.
He was always insisting on showing me this non-existent muscle growth. I'd be sitting watching TV and I could hear him thundering down the stairs and, "Jamie!" Sure enough, I'd go out and there at the bottom of the stairs he'd be naked, flexing like this divorcee pumping-iron Arnold Schwarzenegger. He'd want me to grab his biceps to see how they were growing. It was just absolutely horrible.
I moved in with him when I was about 10 years old. I wasn't used to certain habits of his and one of them was where he would sit in the living room with a hairdryer on this head, completely naked. And it's surreal enough to see your father under a hairdryer. I mean, I'm talking like the old ones from the '50s.
And I remember bringing over this friend of mine and we walk in and my dad's completely naked. And then we decide to just leave. And as we're leaving, my dad says, well, you guys going to go out and boogie tonight? Anyway, he's still in this kind of single-- he thought I was a single guy too.
And of course, he started dating. And he'd tell me about these women. And he always insisted on calling them madame. There was Madame Farago and Madame Hardaway and Madame Wilson. And we never met any of these women, so they're like these phantom madames that I presume existed, but it was difficult. Because you're embarrassed of your father anyways. They're embarrassing. It's your dad. And then here he is gunning the Corvette at a light to impress a girl. And there you are, 10 years old, in this popsicle-colored green Corvette that's rusted and has a hole in the floor.
We talked to a half dozen dads about all this and we discovered that for the most part, they did not have specific memories of moments when they realized that their kids were seeing them differently.
Maybe the kids notice because for a child, any kind of change from what they're used to is huge. Or maybe, it's just that the dads, understandably, wanted to believe that they were not diminished in their children's eyes and didn't let themselves notice a change. Occasionally, a dad told us a story like this one.
I call the boys every day and talk about whatever. How their day was. And one day I was on the phone with my eight year old, Alex. So we were having a conversation and there was a lull in the conversation. And then I sighed. I just went, ah, like that. And then he just asked me, lonely?
I almost started to cry. I was so taken aback by his perception. And I was honest. I said yeah, when you go aren't around I'm lonely.
But even in this case, this dad didn't really think that his kids saw him that differently since the divorce. Since seeing him so vulnerable. Since seeing him cry.
One dad who did notice a change in his kid was Brian Masters in Wichita. Since he and his wife split up eight months ago, his young son started looking out for him. Taking care of him in ways he never had before the divorce.
Probably the first thing that he started doing was helping me clean up, grabbing the Swiffer and going and doing the hardwood floors. And sweeping the porch. And going around and opening up windows to kind of freshen the place up. And you know, just sort of some of the kinds of things that you don't think of a kid even having on their radar screen.
What else would he do to try to be the responsible one around the house?
He kind of runs through this little checklist on our way out the door. Do you have your cellphone? Did you turn off the oven? Is the back door locked? You know, little litany of things that he knows I'm going to be worried about later.
He's 10? Wow, that is so parental.
Isn't it? Oh, I know. I would love it if that only made me happy. The fact is, it also makes me a little bit sad.
Well, because no kid should be in that position. Kids should get to be kids.
Has Marshall tried to fix you up?
Not in the specific. But especially in the early going, Marshall would-- say we'd be sitting at a coffee shop and he'd be doing his homework and I'd be reading a magazine. And he'd look across the room and kind of nudge me and say, she's really pretty. I bet she's a good cook.
I love how the second sentence after she's really pretty is she's a good cook.
Yeah. I bet she's a good cook.
Did you have to learn new things to cook after your wife left?
I had to remember to cook. You know, which was the hardest part in the darkest days, was just remembering that kids need to be fed just darn near every day for things to go well. And occasionally, he would-- about 7:30, 8 o'clock at night he'd very casually say, you know what would be neat? Dinner.
See, one of the things that I've been thinking about is it's really hard for the child for their parent to be prematurely taken from them as the super person. But how hard is that for the dad?
It's a terrible experience. I mean, talk about a failure. And it was important to me to be able to legitimately reclaim some of that ground. Not just to appear to, but to actually reclaim some of that ground.
Did you consciously try to reclaim it?
Absolutely. Sure. You know, those weren't proud moment in my life to realize that my kid had begun to look out for me. That my kid had begun to become aware of the chinks in my armor.
What are you doing this Father's Day?
Well, I won't be doing anything with Marshall. Sunday is not one of the days that I get to spend with him. Unless we make some kind of a special arrangement to do so. And we haven't just yet, so I would suspect that Sunday will be a little poignant.
Because you'll be alone?
It will be interesting to see if Marshall figures this out and steps in.
I'm hopeful that he will and on another level, I'm kind of hopeful that the whole thing slides passed him and that it isn't a concern for him. That would be strangely comforting to me.
Why? Explain that. Why that would be a sign that things were maybe healthier?
If that were to happen, it would be an indication that he is less aware of my loneliness and less aware of my frailty. And a little less concerned about me.
That'd be a great problem to have. It'd be a great way to be alone on Sunday.
Thanks to all the kids and dads who talked to us.
[MUSIC- "MY DAD" BY PAUL PETERSEN]
Act Two. And If That Diamond Ring Don't Shine.
Act Two, And if that Diamond Ring Don't Shine. There are moments when a dad is tested. And on this Father's Day, let us examine one of them. A daughter's birthday. Ian Brown is a writer and a radio host for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He has this story about what it means to be a dad who is merely human sized. He recorded this at a This American Life show that we did in front of live audiences in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
No one arrives fashionably late for a seven year old's birthday party. That offends rule one of parental life-- never waste free babysitting.
But all seven guests at my daughter Haley's seventh birthday party weer dropped off by their parents mysteriously seven minutes early. That sort of behavior is just plain rude. It was like being swarmed by a gang from planet tiny. They drop their coats in the hall and immediately scattered to the farthest corners of the house, like some new, instantly contagious form of biological weapon.
And I staggered upstairs with a small mountain of coats in my arms. Which is not a chore I saw myself performing back when I was young and longing to be grown up. Even when I was 11, I wanted to be married. Because married people, I knew, had sex every night of their lives.
But that's another story. I was lugging coats.
And back downstairs, Trish, the mother of Katie, Haley's best friend, two best friends ago, Trish shot me a knowing look. Magician, right? How can you tell I said. Fiber optic wands by the forks. And that was the first hint that my wife and I might have gone slightly over the top birthday-wise. That we might have stepped over the strict moral boundary that separates caring, thoughtful parents, who believe in personal attention and quality time, from cheese balls like us, who try to buy their way into their children's hearts.
It's easy to commit that social gaffe these days. My wife and I both work. The harder we work, the guiltier we feel. The more we want Haley's birthday parties to be-- well, visible from outer space would be gratifying. We'd been planning Haley's seventh birthday. Or to be slightly more accurate, my wife Johanna had been planning it and I'd been doing nothing. For weeks.
What there was a cake or iced by professionals in the shape of a magician's top hat, which cost $30. Eight loot bags filled with thoughtful, age appropriate peanut free party favors at $15 a bag. And of course, the magician himself, at $150 for 2 hours. He called himself the Amazing Robert.
I don't think he meant that ironically.
Now, I like to do something special on Haley's birthday. Still, don't you think, I said to my wife as she frantically tried to find a magician who wasn't booked three months in advance, don't you think we might be over amping?
But honey, if we don't go slightly crazy, Johanna said quite logically, some other parent will. Then what's Haley going to think? And anyway, do you have a better idea?
And I did not have a better idea. My sole contribution to the magician party had been to suggest that we include a whoopee cushion in every loot bag. Or at least it was my idea to blow them up and put them in the loot bags pre-inflated.
In the old days, when Haley was small, we kept her birthday simple. I learned that lesson when I lived in Los Angeles near Beverly Hills. In Beverly Hills, parents like their children's birthday parties to have a theme. And a fairly significant theme at that. Manifest destiny say, or a NASA moon shot. In LA, I never went to a birthday party that featured anything less than pony rides. And one mother actually gave out Gucci t-shirts in the loot bags. It was hard to compete with that.
In an act of defiance, a friend of ours, a struggling writer, staged her daughter's birthday in a park of all places. The kids had a good enough time. They ran around and swung on swings and played tag. And generally reveled in a whole two hours when they weren't under the watchful eye of a nanny or armed response security. The grab bags contained what grab bags are supposed to contain, candy rather than Rolex watches. And afterwards, the Beverly Hills parents flocked, I mean literally flocked round our friend. Fabulous idea they said. Nature, who would've thought? Can I steal the theme?
But our friend Katharine is the queen of the less is more, easy on mummy birthday party. She says children want strong experiences, not new ones. Which is why last weekend for her daughter Mary's seventh birthday, Katharine invited six girls over to string gummy bears onto extra long bamboo satay skewers. That was the theme of the party. Skewering candies on a stick. There was some risk of eye injury and the entire gimmick seemed to have Freudian undertones.
The little girls kept saying, I'm going to stick this skewer up gummy's tiny butt. And giggling hysterically. But all in all, it was a winner. Only one girl barfed. The entire party cost $15. Canadian.
It is true that Katharine had a pinata. Pinatas are excellent because they entail hitting an object violently with a stick. But those were the old pre-bacchanalian birthdays. By the time Haley turned five, the year of our most corrupt-- and therefore, most successful birthday-- we'd gone as low as a parent can go. We'd hired Human Barbie.
For $300 Human Barbie dressed up in full size versions of Barbie doll outfits and came to your house. Human Barbie arrived in a Dodge Grand Caravan with Human Midge, her assistant. Two giant mobile racks of party dresses for the girls, a tea set in a case, and two chests of makeup. She dressed the kids, discussed the possibility of multiple careers, and fed them cake.
All our friends were completely horrified. I might as well have said, oh, this year Haley's having a crack party. We're having a cake made of crack too.
My Canadian friends put this crassness down to the fact that Johanna, my wife, is an American.
But successful? Well, it was as if the Dalai Lama had made a stop at our house. The girls were hypnotized with awe. They spent most of the afternoon standing in a circle brushing human Barbie's hair.
I had the feeling that secretly, quite a few mum's wouldn't have minded giving it a try themselves. As it turned out, I needn't have worried about the Amazing Robert, the magician, either. He was a handsome guy with sideburns and a rye, if somewhat resigned manner. He knew what he was doing though. He started cracking jokes with the kids right away.
You must be Haley he said to one of the boys as he walked through the door. No, Peter said. I'm a boy and clapped his hands.
Hey, the magician said. No clapping. So all the kids clapped.
I said no clapping. By the time he started pulling eggs out of their noses, they were goners.
I chose that moment to run upstairs. I find I need a moment alone at regular intervals at these kiddie birthday bashes. Also at adult parties. In fact, I could use a moment alone right about now.
But when I open the door to my bedroom, what do I find? Lying on my bed, surrounded by entire mountain ranges of miniature winter coats. Two of my adult guests holding hands. Their spouses were downstairs. I must say they played it cool.
Headache, the woman said. Rubbing her temples. Not that I ask.
Yeah, I said. These kids parties can be brutal. And I tell you, I left fast. I didn't want to ask. I certainly didn't want to now.
And downstairs, the Amazing Robert was making cards disappear and reappear. But Trish, Katie's mom, she kept staring at the magician. I thought she disapproved of his tricks. But then she gave a little shriek. I know, she said. I knew I knew that magician. He has just come through a terrible divorce from a birthday clown. Which pretty much says it all, doesn't it?
It's terrible getting older, the disappointments and the let-downs. But no child believes that. They want to get older. If you're seven, you can't wait to be nine. I mean, nine. That it's going to be the greatest. Because they think life just gets better and better and better the older you get. And we grown-ups, we know better. Or we think we do. Or at least we need to think we do. But I didn't have much time for such maudlin thought's. Frankly, convoluted ones. Because I knew sound was wafting in from the living room. A sound that is frankly, impossible to be maudlin about.
[WHOOPEE CUSHION SOUNDS]
They'd found the loot bags. Crass? Sure. Cheesy? Absolutely. Grown-up? Not at all. That's what I liked about it.
Ian Brown is the author of Man, Medium Rare and Freewheeling. And the host of a radio program called Talking Books on the CBC.
Coming up, more parental nudity. Very very, brief and very, very harmless parental nudity. Which is, frankly, the only way I can take it. I don't know about you. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three. Legend Of A Bankrobber's Son.
It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we chose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show for father's day, stories about dads who have been removed from the pedestal of paternal grandeur. Dads who are entirely human scale. We have arrived at act three of our show.
Act three, Legend of a Bankrobber's Son.
Nick Flynn's father deserted the family not long after Nick was born. Nick did not know him at all. His father was a check forger and a bankrobber. And for a brief period in the '70s, served some time for it. Nick's mother, politically enough, worked for a bank. And at one point, after they split up, saw the dad on a wanted poster. She brought it home and showed his brother saying, that's your dad. Eventually, under rather odd circumstances, Nick and his father met, and started to get to know each other. Nick Flynn tells this story.
At a certain point, I think I had already heard about my father being in prison and I knew that he was an alcoholic. I was probably 15 or so. I was actually drinking pretty heavily then also, and doing drugs. And my mother got concerned about it. I think she was afraid that I was just going to be like him. It was probably very difficult for her to have me in the house. She'd made a choice to leave a relationship like that and now here I was, sort of becoming that person.
I remember we were sitting in the living room of our house and she-- I'd probably come home one more night, like completely shattered. And I believe it was the next morning, like we woke up and she was just like, this isn't good. She sat me down and said, what did I plan to do with my life? At 15 I had no idea.
We didn't have a lot of money growing up. My mother worked two or three jobs. And things were tight. I told her I planned to go into crime. It seemed like a reasonable thing to think of doing. That would be a way to get a lot of money fast. That was the career path I was considering.
But when I told her that she began to cry. I could see tears well up in her eyes. I tried to sort of back peddle and explain that I'd do sort of white collar victimless crime. And then she just left the room. She just walked out of the room.
Until I was 16, I think I'd seen him just two or three times. I actually remember looking for him. I remember thinking I would see him places because he had friends in Scituate, in my hometown. But by that point, my mother had a warrant on him for nonpayment of child support.
And then, when I was 16 was when my mother first showed me a letter that he sent. There's a lot of letters. I spent a couple weeks a couple of years ago going through all the letters he had sent me, pulling them together. The first letter that I have is from 1976. I just have written it's postmarked June 25. Signed dad. And he regrets for forgetting the date of my birthday. And then one of the lines in it is, "Tell me of yourself. I miss you both. And soon, very soon, I shall be known."
That "soon, very soon, I shall be known." One of the things about my father is that he identifies himself as a writer, as a poet. He has a sense of grandiosity about himself and what his achievements, his place in the world.
Often what he would do is he would take a letter from someone else and Xerox it, and then send it on to someone else. Like he has a correspondence with Ted Kennedy. He writes to him all the time. And being a senator, the senator, I think, just has someone who answers the letters for him. They'll often be that. Often he'll just sort of write something. Maybe a couple words and then there'd be maybe a Xeroxed letter from Ted Kennedy.
I have one here. I mean, I just got one. Actually, the most recent. I just got one a couple days ago. A letter from Ted Kennedy. The print is actually sort of falling apart because it's been Xeroxed so many times.
"Dr Mr. Flynn, thank you for your recent correspondence advising me of your further views on critical issues facing us in Congress."
It goes on, "Thank you again for writing."
These are some lines from a letter that I received from my father in 1995.
"We must have one love, one great love in our life. We are a nation of grunters. I fully intend to control Senator Kennedy's reelection. He shall win and I shall be named the head of the American Arts Council. It shall happen.
I do hope you both are well and earn some solid pursuits of solid goals in life."
And another letter from 1989.
"I shall be able to do for American now what Mr. Solzhenitsyn has done for Russia. My works are waiting. It shall be soon.
And this is from 1987.
"Writers, especially poets are particularly prone to madness. Whether you like it or not, you are me. Eno the Beano tells me you are into drugs. If so, good luck."
By the early '80s, he had been-- I knew he was out of jail. I knew he was out of federal prison. And I knew he was driving a cab. I think a taxi in Boston. I knew something about him, but I hadn't seen him probably for 10, 12 years. And we finally did see each other. He got my phone number. And at some point, I believe it was in 1987, he called me up and said he was getting evicted from the rooming house he was in. He wanted me to come over and to-- he knew I had a pickup truck somehow and he wanted me to come over and to move all his stuff out of the house and out of his apartment.
This might have been the first time I ever talked to him. When I was a kid I don't think I talked to him. And then I'd gotten these letters from him, which I hadn't answered. He was pretty drunk when he called. He said that he was sitting behind his door with a shotgun waiting for the knob to turn. He wasn't going to let them take his stuff and he wasn't going to leave. That I should get over there.
So I actually brought a couple other friends, just for witnesses. And so we got over there. We got there and it was sort of an amazing scene. I knocked on his door and he said to come in. I went in and he was sitting in a tin tub naked in the middle of his room having a bath. And drinking vodka our of a silver challis. I'd never seen him before. Then he stood up naked in front of me covered with water. And it was shocking. It was a shocking scene.
My friends and I stayed with him for maybe half an hour and I ended up giving him some money to put his stuff in storage. To hire a truck and to get a storage unit. I gave him a few hundred dollars. And then we left. And then he moved his stuff out.
And then the next time I saw him was maybe a couple months later. It was getting warmer. I remember it was sort of a warm day. Like maybe April or something. And I was riding my bike along the Charles River and he was sleeping on a bench on the Esplanade by the Charles River. I realized that at this point he was homeless.
At that point, in 1987, I had been working with the homeless at a homeless shelter in Boston for three years. I'd been there for three years as a caseworker. I sort of had a sick feeling in my stomach that he would show up at the shelter where I worked. After seeing him on the bench, probably within a month he ended up at the shelter.
One day in the afternoon he walked into the shelter and he announced loudly to everyone that his son worked there and that he needed a bed. And demanded a bed. And then I came on for my shift later that day and the supervisor took me aside and told me what had happened. And asked me, he said that someone had come looking for a bed today that claimed to be my father. And I was shocked. It was a secret. I didn't want people to know this. I'd probably tell people that he'd been in prison. That he was a writer. That he was a failed writer. And all those things seemed actually sort of-- just seemed to add sort of a mystique. It's something you can just relate, like a good story.
But then, when he becomes homeless, it goes up to another level. I felt riddled with shame that this man was my father. Which was confusing for me because I had worked with the homeless for three years and I had a lot of compassion for homeless people. But when it happened to someone in my family, to happen to my father, I felt utter shame that people would look at me and judge in a certain way. Whether that I was going to end up like him. That I was sort of crazy like him. Or why couldn't I help him? Why couldn't I do something? You know, I was his family. I lived in a place. Why didn't he live in my place?
But then, I did not want him to be-- I had this sense that he had-- he hadn't really given me much in my life and now he was going to come and take away a job I had in some way. That he would come to my job and just sort of [BLEEP] that up. I wished he would go anywhere but where I worked.
He did all right for a while. He got a job. He was sort of a model homeless person. He had a day job at a labor pool. He would have a bad held for him by someone else. I didn't have a lot of interaction with him.
I remember him being in the lobby of the shelter and him coming in at night. I would have radar for when he came in. I would know when he was there. I would look over and see him go and get his bed ticket for the night. I probably wouldn't say anything to him. And then I would just sort of see him. And I'd judge whether he seemed drunk or not. Whether he seemed like it was just going to be a smooth transition from the day into the night. Or if it wasn't. Or if there was going to be a scene.
And there were a few times I remember meeting him actually, after work. At dawn when he was on his way to the labor pools to do work. And walking with him and talking. Actually, like outside the shelter. Like walking along and trying to figure out what was going on with him.
And I went back to the shelter recently this past winter for the first time. And talked to a lot of people who-- and asked them, what they were thinking of this. How we interacted. What I seemed like. What they thought. And most people said that they were just utterly confused. That they had no idea really what to-- how to treat me, how to treat him. And it seemed to them that I didn't want to talk about it. I wouldn't really give them a way into a conversation about this. I was just sort of maybe too freaked out and I didn't know what to say.
I really don't know what I was feeling. I think I was feeling awful. I was feeling confused and it seemed like a nightmare to me, actually.
When my father showed up in 1987 in the shelter, I was actively drinking and using drugs. From what I remember, my drug increase probably-- my drug intake, I imagine, increased. I had totaled three vehicles. And all of them I had been drinking or doing drugs while I was driving.
At one point, I had a motorcycle accident while I was drunk. It's not a good idea to ride a motorcycle when you're drunk. And ended up in the hospital, Lost my spleen.
I would drink and smoke marijuana. You know, pretty much daily. I was sort of fitting a profile of someone who was on the way to some kind of ruin or something.
I looked at my father and he was 30 years older than me. He identified himself as a writer. I identified myself as a writer. He didn't take it seriously. He didn't take his situation seriously. And maybe I didn't either at that point. Somehow I was able to gain perspective by looking at him. And I'm not sure why I couldn't gain perspective by looking at all the other homeless guys that were there, and drinking and nose diving. But somehow looking at him and feeling like, OK, even though I don't know him as a father, there's some connection between us. And if I keep going like I'm going, I'm going to end up like him. It terrified me.
And after he'd been there for two years, I ended up getting into therapy and getting sober. And I think it actually has a lot to do with that, with seeing my father and seeing what could happen to someone's life. I sort of had to see something that extreme I think to realize what a potential fate that I could end up in.
He had it together enough to realize that when he turned 60 he was eligible for senior housing. And when he turned 60, he actually got an apartment in subsidized housing, section 8 housing.
I began filming him probably five years after that, like in middle of the '90s.
As I had learned in the 90 days I had been there what would happen. I would have looked like Toulouse Lautrec. They'd have shot the balls off at the knees. Not even higher.
My proposal was that I was going to seek out and interview the men that had known my mother. The men that had been in my mother's life, for a year, or for five years, or for however long.
And so the first time I really went to look for my father was with a video camera and I interviewed him. Every time I'd go to him for the next three or four years, I'd bring a camera with me. And just his story sort of kept coming.
[UNINTELLIGIBLE], Lewisberg, Atlanta, Marion, Illinois, which was built to replace Alcatraz. I was there. And I had the pleasure. I mean, the pleasure speaking as Solzhenitsyn. I mean, I want to know what the [BLEEP] I was writing about. I was thinking, Jesus, Solzhenitsyn is going to jump with envy when he sees this [BLEEP] story. He and Dostoyevsky both wrote about their adventures in Russian prisons heavily.
All he wanted to do was to give me his three step plan for how to rob a bank. Which seemed to be his version of fatherly advice. We had never spoken before and this was the first real conversation we had. Was he laid out his method of robbing banks to me.
Three steps in the whole program. Step one, open an account. Open an account.
He sort of kept forgetting the steps also. It involved getting someone to steal some checks from an insurance company and then to forge those checks. Make a whole series of forged checks. And then to open dummy bank accounts around the country. It was sort of elaborate. Elaborate and convoluted. And ultimately, a failed enterprise.
Step one, I was given like a hundred $100 bills. Well, [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Driven to the bank by [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Go in with my story. Always a female teller. Always go to a young female teller. A guy is no good. They're generally homosexuals.
When I first met up with him, we went to a soup kitchen where he ate. I did a tape in there and he introduced me to other people he ate with, the other people in the soup kitchen, who had known him for years since he goes to the soup kitchen several times a week.
This is your son?
This is my son, Nicholas.
How do you do?
This is a good friend of mine. I'm not kidding you.
I thought you were just somebody he picked up on the way making a documentary.
I can't believe a handsome kid like you belongs to him.
It was the mother. The mother was beautiful. I was lucky.
He was very proud that this is my son. And no one really believed that he had a son. I said, yeah, I was his son. And he bragged to people that I was working at Columbia University.
What's your name?
Walter. Nice to meet you, Walter.
He teaches at Columbia University. My kid. Imagine that. For writing.
That's a miracle.
Well again, his mother had brains. I got to get another coffee. How old are you anyway?
Are you that old?
When's the last time I saw you?
Four years ago.
How the hell you'd go to the NYU [UNINTELLIGIBLE] school? I don't know what promoted you. How'd you go there? You majored in writing?
Struggling fully. He knows how successful his father is as a writer.
A lot of times I'm very frustrated when I go and meet with him because it seems like he tells the same stories over and over again. They seem very disconnected to reality. But those few times where I have felt some connection, it does seem that he's just let his guard down a little bit and let me glimpse at his struggle in some way. You know, what connects us. He actually wrote me a letter right after-- he sent me a couple letters after my book of poems came out.
In the first one it just says, "Dear Nick, your book is a classic. Love, your father." That's a unique letter. Because the classic has only been a word that he's ever reserved for his own work. And so for him to apply that to my is just sort of him turning, even if just for a second and sort of looking at me and saying something about what I've done.
There has to be a reason that I've held onto his letters for all these years. There has to be some sort of reason, something I've been waiting for, or looking for, or hoping for. And yes, something like this is sort of maybe as close as I'll get to it.
I would like to have sort of one of those deep, connecting moments with him. But I'm not really sure if I've achieved that yet. Again, I'm actually not even sure if at this point, I would hope for or-- sure. Maybe you always hope for it, you just sort of deny that hope or something. I don't know if I even hope for it at this point. It's almost enough just to sit in front of him. To go to his room and sit with him for an hour. And just see where he is. And tell him, whatever. I'll tell him one thing about myself. If he hears it, that's great. If he doesn't hear it, that's fine.
I don't expect him to give me anything at this point. It's almost enough just to go and see him. It somehow calms me enough or settles my soul enough just to go and have some relationship at all with him. I'm sort of down to the real basic, like really stripped down to the most basic father there can be. He just is my father and there's nothing I can do about that. There's nothing he can do about that. I go and I sit and I have a relationship with this person who is my father.
Nick Flynn's book of poems is called Some Ether. He's working on a book in which his dad figures prominently.
Well, our program was produced by Wendy Dorr and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jonathan Goldstein, and Starlee Kine. Senior producer Julie Snyder. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, [UNINTELLIGIBLE], Rebecca Carroll, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Paul McCarthy. Musical help from Mr. John Connors.
If you'd like to buy a cassette copy of this program, a little late for Father's Day, but still, you can own it. Call us here at WBEZ in Chicago 312-832-3380. Or visit our website where you can also listen to our programs for free, absolutely free at www.thisamericanlife.org.
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Be naked, flexing like this divorcee, pumping iron Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I'm IRA Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.
He'd want me to grab his biceps to see how they were growing. It was just absolutely horrible.
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