Transcript

205:

Plan B
Transcript

Originally aired 02.01.2002

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/205

Prologue.

Ira Glass

There's a short story by the fiction writer Ron Carlson in which a guy loses his job after 10 years at the job. His boss tells him, OK, go to Plan B. And the guy says, this was Plan B. Which is, I think, how it goes for most of us. We head off cheerfully toward Plan A, but Plan A turns out to be completely different from what we thought it was going to be, and so we switch to a backup. And then the backup plan becomes our life.

Just this morning, I was giving a talk to some people-- there were about 100 people there. And knowing I was going to be talking about this on the radio today, I asked them to remember back to when they first hit adulthood. What is it that they thought their lives would be like? What was their Plan A back then? And I asked them, OK, how many of you are still on Plan A? Out of 100 people, only one person raised her hand. Just one. The youngest person in the room. Just 23 years old.

Everybody else in the room was like, Plan B? What about Plan C and D and F?

Today on our program, stories of the backup plan, and people living the backup plan, which is most of us. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in five acts, including the story of how you decide, as your backup plan, to kidnap the child of the most famous entertainer in the world. And Jonathan Goldstein's story of how he took a telemarketing job just to tide things over for a while, then kept it for 10 years, finding, to his disappointment, that he was better at telemarketing than at anything else in his life. Stay with us.

Act One. It's Another Tequila Sunrise.

Ira Glass

Act One, It's Another Tequila Sunrise. John Hodgman tells this fable of giving up one dream for another, much more ridiculous dream.

John Hodgman

A few years ago, the company that owns Jose Cuervo Tequila purchased Marina Key, a small eight-acre speck of an island in the Caribbean. And they renamed it Cuervo Nation. They applied to the UN for independent statehood. They encouraged US citizens to defect, by a simple ritual of drinking a shot. They even tried to field an Olympic volleyball team.

The whole thing was a bold experiment in advertising via nation building. But since those heady early days of independence, the nation's patriotic fervor has calmed somewhat. It's now used as a place to send contest winners, and a promotional lure for members of the world press, which is how I found myself headed to Cuervo Nation last June for a series of very educational tequila tastings, and how I met the nation's most prominent citizen and ambassador to the world.

He stood at the dock waiting for us as our ferry chugged over from Tortola. Shaven-headed, goatee'd, he sort of looked like Anton LaVey, were it not for the Speedos, mirror shades and red superhero cape. A satanist at spring break. Through a megaphone he alerted us that we are now entering a party zone. As we disembarked, he began scooting maniacally around us with a tequila shot balanced on his bald head, daring us to suck it down without using our hands. This was Cuervo Man.

The other Cuervo representatives were there to teach us about tequila. Cuervo Man, I was told, was there to party with us. His job was to party. And just as I began to grasp the frightening yet thrilling ramifications of this fact, Cuervo Man spotted me. He pointed to his shot-crowned head, opened his arms wide, and chased me down the dock.

Cuervo Man's man's real name is Ryan McDonough. I learned this from the Cuervo reps who I think were a little annoyed that I was asking so few questions about their tequila, and so many questions about the man who seemed to be their trained tequila monkey. Actually, I was told, the term is party catalyst. And when he wasn't on the island, Ryan was going from bar to bar all over the Northeast, embodying the untamed spirit of Jose Cuervo. Meaning what? I asked them. Meaning he does interactive promotions designed to introduce consumers to the responsible enjoyment of the various brands of Jose Cuervo Tequila. Meaning what? I asked them.

And that's when Ryan ran up to the table with a toilet seat around his neck and a plunger stuck to the top of his head. Dude, he said. Check it out. Plunger on my head. And then he ran down to the beach and shoved sand down his pants. And then he sang a dirty song and made us do shots in teams. And then he collapsed in the surf and barked like a seal.

It's sort of hard to explain what he does, they told me. And that's exactly why he fascinated me.

I mean, consider the plunger. Were it me, I might have come up with putting a toilet seat around my neck, sure. That's a natural. But then to extend the metaphor, to take the imaginative leap to the plunger on the head, well, that's genius.

By the last night I was there, the Cuervo reps realised I was a lost cause. They left me with a bottle of Cuervo Especial and went to bed. And Ryan and I got to talking. It turned out Cuervo Man and I have a lot in common. We both live in New York. Like me, Ryan is 30 years old, originally from the Boston area. Like me, he went to an Ivy League school and spent most of his time there drinking and feeling out of place. Yes, the man barking like a seal, that's a Princeton man.

And that's when I realized that, apart from some small matters of fate, and several thousand sit-ups on Ryan's part, we were the same. We both came out of college with an English degree, a thirst for booze, and the absurd faith that someone would pay us simply for being drunk and charming. And in a strange but undeniable way, for Ryan that turned out to be true. And that's when I realized I was jealous of him.

How does one get to be a party catalyst? I asked. Dude, he said, that's what everyone wants to know.

Ryan Mcdonough

That's my bag of stuff, my bag of tricks, what kind of props a guy in my field needs. Got my helmet. Stuffed monkeys I got at LaGuardia airport. I've got three of them.

John Hodgman

It's six months later, and I'm in Ryan's apartment in Brooklyn. He's agreed to take me with him to a couple of bars out on Long Island where he is doing whatever it is he does, and he's showing me a few of the things he'll bring with him.

Ryan Mcdonough

The Speedo I have. I throw that on because it's just shocking, it's shock value. Rubber chicken. Plunger. [PLUNGER SUCTION] Right on the bald head, that just-- [PLUNGER SUCTION]

John Hodgman

It was never Ryan's dream to have a job wearing a plunger. He wanted to act. It's a cliche, I know, and so did Ryan. But he had done some singing and musical theater in college, and this was his dream. Specifically, this was his dream.

Ryan Mcdonough

[SINGING] There is nothing like a dame, nothing in the world. There is nothing you can name that is anything like a dame.

John Hodgman

Ryan did South Pacific in summer stock, and some dinner theater, but it really wasn't coming together the way he wanted it to. From the beginning, he knew he needed a backup plan, so he started looking for a job in finance. After all, what's a Princeton degree good for if not making money? He interviewed at six companies, but he only got a call back at one.

Ryan Mcdonough

I think everyone else who applied there from Princeton, they all got offered jobs. So I called and they were not going to offer me a job. I'm like, why? Why not? And I was really, really upset. And thought I could change his mind or something. He was like, well, it just seems-- you know, people seem to think that you'd really rather be acting. And I'm like, why don't you leave that up to me? I need money.

John Hodgman

To act, he needed a day job. But the day job wanted him to act. So he was stuck in New York, working part-time at a mail order Bible company, and part-time at an Upper East Side bar.

Now, Ryan enjoyed a delicious beverage from time to time. And when he drank, either after his shift or sometimes during, everyone paid attention to him. He'd make jokes, and balance shot glasses on his head. He owned the room.

Ryan Mcdonough

I mean, I've always been the type of guy that people would invite to parties, to weddings. People would offer-- when I had no money and I was hanging out with my buddies from Princeton who all were making bank, and they're like, come on, we're going out to the bar, I'm like, I don't have any money, they're like, I'll pay for your drinks, I want you to come out. And it wasn't even so much, like, I was such a great friend to these people. I was just a funny-ass drunk. People wanted the funny-ass drunk around.

And I was just bar backing and I would always goof around, and I would occasionally get a little drunk and dance with people. Anyway, the DJ there has his own DJ company. And he would do weddings and parties and stuff like that. So he took me on.

John Hodgman

And so Ryan joined a shadow industry of party professionals, the kind you might meet on resorts, or on yachts, leading surfside limbo competitions, or at reunions encouraging people to dance, people whose job it is to force us to interact, to touch one another, to have fun. Because apparently this is something we've forgotten how to do.

Ryan paid his dues working bar mitzvahs, organizing group games, dressing up as Woody from Toy Story, complete with a big plastic head over his own head. And then he got the call from Jose Cuervo. They were running a tugboat called the Untamed Spirit II for short booze cruises out of San Diego, and they wanted him on it. His job would be to entertain winners of various Jose Cuervo promotional contests. And it turned out, they pretty much enjoyed the same things that 13-year-olds did, minus the big plastic head and plus tequila. And Ryan could drink too.

Ryan Mcdonough

I was the envy of all my peers. Really. And eventually, the opportunity came to do it full-time. And the tough part about it was that I was going to have to give up acting. Any pretense I had of being an actor was gone. Because it was like, you know what? I'm not doing it. So I was like, let's make some money doing something that's close to acting. And so I went with it.

John Hodgman

Ryan had entered the party zone.

Ryan Mcdonough

It's your lucky night here at Monterey's. We got Jose Cuervo in the house tonight. And I think the fire department might like that from Uniondale. You guys doing good? You want some complementary Cuervo samples? In other words, shots you don't have to pay for. Yeah.

John Hodgman

Monterey's Sports Bar is on route 24 in Uniondale, Long Island. Hofstra University is nearby. But this part of Uniondale is not so much a college town as it is a college strip, a blacktop spoke of suburban sprawl, with Monterey's on the corner, next to a guns and ammo shop, next to a Starbucks. Inside, it's dank and cavernous, with banners advertising $0.15 wings and $5 pitchers.

I'll learn many important things tonight. But perhaps most surprising is this: people in bars apparently need Cuervo t-shirts and mini shot glasses in order to live. And to get them, they will do unimaginable things.

Ryan Mcdonough

Right now I've got a t-shirt in my Speedo. You see that? Hold on, I'm going to come to you. You've got to bite it nice and slow. Who's getting it?

John Hodgman

Let me set the scene. Ryan is standing at the back of a crowded bar. He's torn off his black break-away sweatpants to reveal a very tight Speedo stuffed with t-shirts. And then-- how shall I put this?-- young women crouch down in front of him, take hold of a shirt with their teeth, and pull.

Ryan Mcdonough

Oh, oh, oh. Bite it like you mean it. Like cave woman. Yes. That's what I'm talking about.

John Hodgman

I hadn't bargained for this. If Ryan's not giving girls t-shirts out of his pants, he's serving them shots off his head, eye level with their bras. Or asking them to lick his scalp. Or just rubbing up against them. Maybe it's because he seems more mischievous than predatory, or maybe it's because he comes with the sanction and strange demi-celebrity of a well-known liquor brand, but Ryan is able to do and say things in the name of Cuervo that would get you arrested under most circumstances. And his antics aren't just tolerated, they're adored.

Ryan Mcdonough

All right. Pay no attention to my head, right in your candy canes. No hands.

John Hodgman

On Cuervo Nation, I would have described him as a kind of corporate jester. But as I watch women gleefully French him and then wander casually back to their boyfriends, a better word comes to mind. He's a satyr, the half man, half beast concert of Dionysus, god of drunken revelry. And not just because he's got a hairy back.

Ryan Mcdonough

Why don't you trim me like Sasquatch? Trim me. Trim me like Sasquatch. Take me home and domesticate me.

Woman

Who's Sasquatch?

Ryan Mcdonough

Sasquatch? He's a hairy guy.

Woman

You have a plunger on your head.

John Hodgman

And if you haven't guessed already, this is the other reason I'm fascinated by Ryan's job. While the rest of the bar grind dances and flirts and watches sports on the 30-odd TVs at Monterey's, I've somehow managed to plant myself next to the single screen that's inexplicably tuned to PBS, specifically Ric Burns's documentary of New York.

Ryan, on the other hand, is out there moving in a world in which commerce and pleasure and liquor and sex are all intimately and uncritically entwined. And everyone is having a wicked good time. It's a world in which I normally don't travel, and Ryan is my ticket in. When he runs out to his car for a last minute t-shirt resupply, I realize that this is my chance to try my hand at satyrdom.

I get a tray of shots from the woman who's been helping Ryan, and I start making the rounds.

John Hodgman

Hey, do you want a free tequila shot? Try one of these. It's tequila from Cuervo.

Woman

Follow me, we'll go to my friends, and we'll all have shots.

John Hodgman

Oh, yeah? Let's go.

And I do follow her. But when we find her friends, they all just stare at me. Maybe it's not clear, so I say, do you want free tequila? And they just say, no thanks.

Man

Designated driver.

Woman

I'll throw up.

John Hodgman

Is it something I did? I can do something wacky.

If there's one thing it should not be hard to give away in a bar, it's free drinks. And yet as I go from corner to corner, no one is drinking off my head. No one is pulling anything out of my pants. And part of the problem is, I'm not Ryan. And maybe I should shave my head and loosen up a little. But beyond that, what I don't realize until I'm out there doing it, is as much as I love to drink, and as much as I love Jose Cuervo Tequila, and as much as I'd love another free trip to Cuervo Nation, I feel weird pushing some big company's message that slamming down shots is a great game, that drinking always equals fun.

Which even Ryan knows isn't exactly true. Because one thing I haven't mentioned yet, and probably should have, is that Ryan doesn't drink, at least not anymore.

Ryan Mcdonough

[SINGING] I would swallow a shot, chill it so it's not hot, then I'll have some more, not a little, a lot. Suck on a lime. No, it's not a crime. Sometimes we all need a chaser. Want to put my tender gold in a blender, watch it spin around to a tasty margarita. Jose Cuervo Tequila.

John Hodgman

Part of Ryan's act is writing new lyrics to existing rock songs that describe the pleasures of drinking Cuervo, or give very precise directions on how to do a body shot. Here's an example. Quote, "Shots with or without training wheels. Cuervo doesn't hurt. You know it heals." It's a little unnerving to hear, knowing that the person who wrote these lyrics is the same person who quit drinking more than a year ago, in part because he was afraid that it might kill him.

He was kicked out of a hotel in Florida for throwing a table off the balcony. In St. Louis, he blacked out in the middle of a promotion. And at Cuervo Nation, he got so loaded he cursed out an elderly guest he was supposed to be entertaining.

Ryan Mcdonough

It was an older guy, probably in his 60s. And they were professional contest winners. And he's talking at dinner about all these other contests he won, and how this one was nicer than this one and blah, blah, blah. And it sounded like he was complaining a little bit about something. And I was like, why don't you shut up? It's a free frickin' trip, old man. OK? Why don't you take your professional contest winning attitude and shove it up your [BLEEP]. And the next day I woke up, like, I know I said something awful.

John Hodgman

The problem for Ryan was that, in most cases, it is very bad to be caught drinking on the job, but in Ryan's case, it only made him more successful. The wilder and drunker he got, the more bars wanted him back, the more Cuervo wanted him back. And what amazes me is that at the time Ryan was deciding to get sober, Cuervo asked him to sign on for another 100 promotional gigs over the course of the coming year. And Ryan said, how about 150?

That's every weekend, almost half the year spent in bars, tequila on his head, tequila spilling down his face. It must be like Eve working in the apple factory that's owned by snakes.

John Hodgman

How does it feel, as someone who doesn't drink anymore, to be confronted on a nightly basis with people who might be drunk and hurting former you?

Ryan Mcdonough

I just don't think about it all that much because there's nothing I can do about it either way. And I just don't know. I think that's it. I mean, I can't make any judgment. There's nobody that I could tell you, like, that guy needs to stop drinking and know it for sure. I can certainly say, like, oh, that guy reminds me of me. That happens a lot. But when it comes down to it, it's up to them. It's just, it's not my call.

John Hodgman

Ryan's 150-day bar hop for Cuervo is almost over. His current contract is coming to a close. And he's now working on a new, very different project.

Ryan Mcdonough

I am Sonic Man. And I'm out to prove what a smooth, clean shave you'll get with the Panasonic Sonic shaver--

John Hodgman

This is a television ad for the Panasonic Sonic Shaver Max electric shaver, in which Ryan plays a character called Sonic Man. He got the gig from someone who saw him doing a Cuervo promotion. And a lot of it's the same. He jumps around in public, accosting people, yelling at them, convincing them of the superiority of this particular brand of shaver by hopping into fountains and getting sprayed with a hose.

But if it sounds as if there's no difference, think of this. First, people do not generally drink while they're shaving. And second, Ryan's an actor now, an actual actor, with national exposure, a good agent, making decent money.

So the backup plan has brought him back to his original plan. And I'm happy for him, but also kind of sad. Put it this way, I still kind of want to be Cuervo Man, but I don't think I'd ever want to be Sonic Man. The fact is, Ryan's leaving something behind, the booze, obviously. And that's a good thing. But also the Bacchanalian power of the booze, its danger, the contradictions that made Cuervo Man more than a day job, but a kind of inspired extension of Ryan himself, which is to say, a kind of art.

I wonder, now that he's the actor he always wanted to be, if he'll ever get a role as good as the one he's already played.

Ryan Mcdonough

Hey, throw this. Come here. Throw this. Throw it onto my plunger. Throw the Frisbee onto the plunger.

Ira Glass

John Hodgman. His his latest book is called More Information Than You Require. Or maybe the way to read that is, More Information Than You Require.

[MUSIC - "INSIDE OUT" BY EVE 6]

Act Two. Why Talk?

Ira Glass

Act Two, Why Talk? Here's a situation that many of us have been in, and found ourselves confused about what to do. You start to become friends with somebody from work. And then you run up against this problem which requires action of some sort, and a new plan. It happened to one of our producers, Starlee Kine at her last job, with a woman named Robin.

Starlee Kine

We had just met. And we'd go out for drinks and stuff after work. We really liked each other and we wanted to, like-- we decided we were going to be new, really good friends, you know? But we didn't know anything about each other, so we'd start to tell each other things. But the problem was, we were just so busy and there was never enough time to tell each other the big stories in our life.

Ira Glass

And at that point, your friend Robin came up with a Plan B.

Starlee Kine

She did. She got to the point where-- because she would start to tell me stories, and she would get really frustrated by how much she had to tell. And then she was like, I'm just going to make you a tape. And so, at one point, I was going home to LA. I'm from LA. And then right before I left for LA, she just was like, here you go, here's your tape. And I started listening to it, and it was true. She started by saying, OK, so now I'm going to do my ex-boyfriend montage.

Robin

I am not going to start when I was a kid. But I am going to just give you a little background history with the guy thing. I'm going to try to stay as close to the truth as possible. That was a drag off of my cigarette. That's what I was doing right there.

Starlee Kine

The whole first side A is all her ex-boyfriends, all the way they affected her and how it changed her, and with all the little details thrown in. And it's very thorough, and it's very complete. And I definitely get a sense of the boyfriend.

Robin

And Ken was a hockey player. He was not the smartest guy in the world. And he could only describe our relationship in hockey metaphors. Like, Robin is like when you're skating towards a goal, and you think you've got it, but you don't. And it's like a puck that hits you once, but, you recover--

Starlee Kine

I mean, the whole goal of it is so nice and touching, that she wanted me to know this about her, and that she put this time into making this catalog of her life so that I could know her better.

Robin

But Tony and I would go to all these prestigious art openings. And he would always get drunk and start raving. Like, this is shite. I could do this better. This is shite. And he would walk around and he just couldn't understand contemporary artwork. And I really can't either, so I could kind of understand.

And we'd go to these installations where the whole room would just be, like, one big dung ball. And he would scream, this is really shite. Because it was, you know?

Starlee Kine

And then, on side B, she starts-- she has a list of the other things that she wanted me to know. And they're really, really, really small things. And they're just like, I had this dream once and I feel you should know this. I get afraid when people are choking in restaurants. Just tiny, couple sentences. And she's got a list and she's kind of checking it off as she goes along.

Robin

But anyway, the one pet that I didn't have, which I wasn't allowed to have, was a dog. So I would steal the neighbor's dog, Muffin. I think I told you about the dream where a woman had 82 household objects lodged within her body. And I'm still trying to figure that one out. Throw up story, don't feel like talking about it. The teeth story--

Ira Glass

And then, after all that, she takes around the tape record and then she gets other people to talk on your tape?

Starlee Kine

Yes. She walks around and has people say hello to me. And she says, will you say Happy Birthday to my 75-year-old Grandmother, Starlee.

Ira Glass

Complete strangers?

Starlee Kine

Total complete strangers. They're just random people on the street.

Robin

I'm making a tape for my grandmother, Starlee, for her 75th birthday. Could you just say, hi Starlee.

Woman

Hi Starlee.

Robin

Thank you. I know you're in a rush, I can see you're running. Can you just say, hi Starlee?

Man

Hi.

Robin

Hi. OK. Thank you. I'm making a tape for my grandmother's 75th birthday.

Policeman

[INTO WALKIE TALKIE] Standby, Kevin.

Robin

And her name's Starlee. Can you just say, hi Starlee.

Policeman

Hi Starlee, how are you?

Robin

Thank you.

Ira Glass

So did this do what she wanted it to do?

Starlee Kine

I think so. For sure, yeah. It totally felt like the perfect solution to the problem of making friends as you get older, you know? Because as you get older-- I'm not that old, but the thing I miss most as an adult is time. It's like time is so valuable now. And you don't get to have the same conversations that you did when you were in high school, where you'd be on the phone with someone for, like, eight hours a night. Or you'd just stay up all night long and tell every single thing that's ever happened to. And there was even less that had happened to you because you were, like, 15 years old. And it was so much talking. So much bonding. Bonding, bonding, bonding.

And as an adult, you just don't have the chance to do that very much. And now we're really good friends. Since then, I understand all of her references, you know? I feel like I've known her much longer than I have.

Ira Glass

But isn't the point of being friends with somebody that, when they tell you this information, that it happens in a conversation, that that's not the background for the friendship, that that actually is the friendship.

Starlee Kine

Some could say that. Sure. But as far as, like, the past stuff, I feel like it's not that big a difference sometimes. Because it gets to a point where you just have all these bottled stories. Like, I got this boyfriend, he did this. And I have this boyfriend, he did this. And it meant this and it meant that. And it's like, why not just put those stories on a cassette tape to have someone listen to all at once.

Ira Glass

Starlee Kine. Coming up, sock puppets dialing for steak. And kidnapping as Plan B. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Kidnapping As Plan B.

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 show, Plan B, stories of people ditching their expectations and living inside a backup plan, as most of us do. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, when kidnapping is Plan B.

Even now I think Barry Keenan has a hard time thinking of himself as a kidnapper. He grew up in southern California, in Malibu, went to high school with the children of movie stars and other super rich people. And if you could say that he had a plan for his life, he achieved a lot of it by the age of 22. It was the the early 1960s. He was the youngest member of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange. He had successfully put together some real estate deals. He was making a lot of money. But he'd also started drinking, heavily, and became addicted to Percodan and other painkillers.

Barry Keenan

Of course, if you're drinking and taking strong painkillers, you get very numbed out. And on a good day you might have an hour of rational thinking, quote, unquote "rational thinking." And then also the market had a big downturn in late '62, early '63. And my real estate deals went sour. In a period of six months, I went from earning in the neighborhood of $10,000 a month, 1963 dollars, to trying to sell transparent window shades door to door to stores in the middle of the desert.

Ira Glass

And it's 1963. You're how old at that point?

Barry Keenan

23.

Ira Glass

So you've gone broke. You're 23. And then you come up with this Plan B.

Barry Keenan

Well, one day I decided, well, I have to do something radical. And in my demented state, suddenly it came to me that the way to solve my problems was to get some money somehow. And it would have to be illegally because I was obviously incapable of raising money from my real estate projects and securities projects. So I came across kidnapping seemed like a good idea. And I put a business plan together and went to my--

Ira Glass

Wait, wait wait. Kidnapping seemed like a good idea and you put a business plan together?

Barry Keenan

Yes, I was very business-oriented. I never referred to it as a kidnapping. It was going to be the plan of operation. It was kind of like an underwriting, a securities underwriting, but I had to go take somebody's kid in order to raise the money to invest in business propositions. And, of course, being a good Catholic, the only way I could rid of the sin was to pay the money back ultimately.

Ira Glass

You say that kidnapping seemed like a reasonable option. Wasn't there any part that kind of horrified you?

Barry Keenan

No, because in my drug-induced state, you might say, I knew I wasn't going to hurt anybody and therefore it wasn't going to be a crime as far as my moral character was concerned. And as long as I was willing to pay the money back and was absolutely not going to hurt anybody, then it seemed like it was OK.

Ira Glass

So explain to me who you decided to kidnap.

Barry Keenan

Well, I went down the list of all the wealthy people I knew and who had kids that I knew. There was Vicky Douglas, who's father was CEO of Douglas Aircraft. That was eliminated because she was a girl. Jim Mitchum who knew me too well. And his father, Robert Mitchum. You know, he was rich one month and then broke the next. And then Arthur Lake whose father was and Johnny Weissmuller. All these people that had famous parents. And you know, I went down the list, and finally I thought of Nancy. And of course--

Ira Glass

Nancy?

Barry Keenan

Nancy Sinatra, the oldest daughter of Frank Sinatra. And so, then I said, of course, Junior. And, of course, I say Junior and I'm referring to Frank Sinatra, Junior, Frank Senior's son.

Ira Glass

And had you met him before?

Barry Keenan

I had seen him. I mean, I knew Nancy in high school and junior high and had been to her home several times, and knew that the son, who was away on boarding school, was sort of distant from the girls. The girls were doted upon, but Junior was always sort of out of the picture.

Ira Glass

How much ransom money were you going to ask for?

Barry Keenan

$240,000. I'd made a list of all the money we needed both for investments and to help my parents. And it came out to $240,000. Since I was going to have to pay it back, I didn't want to raise more money than I could easily pay back.

Ira Glass

And you decided you were going to take the money and then you were going to do what to make it back?

Barry Keenan

I was going to invest in real estate projects in west Los Angeles. And the specific stocks that I was going to invest in was Chrysler at the time, which was in the toilet-- and, of course, made a spectacular comeback-- and several different stocks, and some real estate, which ultimately became Marina Del Rey, the world's largest marina. And, in fact, if I had, by some miracle, had ever gotten the money and then, in fact, invested it, it would have turned out the way that I had it outlined in my business plan.

So the investments were actually fairly prudent. It just was the concept was a little off.

Ira Glass

And so you were going to take this capital, you were going to invest in this stuff, and then you were going to make a profit over, I guess, a couple years, right?

Barry Keenan

Yeah. It'd be about-- it was a five-year plan.

Ira Glass

And then at the end of five years, you were going to give the money back to Sinatra?

Barry Keenan

Yes. Send the money back to Frank Sinatra. And just imagining the reaction that he and the FBI would have when the ransom money starts coming back to him.

Ira Glass

Just explain how the plan of operation was going to go, how the whole thing would come off, where everybody would be at the end. How was that [UNINTELLIGIBLE]?

Barry Keenan

It was indexed in a three-ring binder with indexes. One of the sections was the benefit to the Sinatra family. And it would bring father and son closer together. At the time, Sinatra was being investigated for his connections with the mob and money laundering through the Cal-Neva Lodge and Sands casino in Las Vegas. And I thought, well, this might even help him there.

Ira Glass

You mean help his image?

Barry Keenan

Yes, help it. Because I felt that, if the public would perceive him as a worried parent rather than a famous singer hanging out with the mafia, that would cast him in a more favorable image. And that was one of the things that I listed in the benefits of the Sinatra family.

Ira Glass

You know the thing about that plan, Barry, is that in a way it's utterly logical. It just proceeds from a premise that's so crazy.

Barry Keenan

Sane people don't wake up one day and decide they're going to go kidnap the most famous entertainer in the world, who has known Mafia connections. And so you're going to have the FBI and the Mafia after you. Sane people don't do that, and particularly thinking that they're going to benefit the victims as well as their own family.

Ira Glass

When I asked Barry Keenan to tell me what happened when he tried to put his Plan B into effect and do the kidnapping, he's at such pains to get the truth of it across to me, and to prove especially that the blame for the crime falls entirely on him, and not on two pals that he enlisted to help with the kidnapping, that this story is filled with far too many details and takes far longer than we can spend here.

Suffice it to say that it was a comedy of errors. In December of 1963, the 23-year-old Keenan and a friend nabbed the 19-year-old Frank Sinatra, Junior, who was performing at Lake Tahoe. Keenan accidentally left his gun in Sinatra's hotel room. He didn't have any cash to buy gas for the getaway car. During the getaway, his buddy Joe climbed out of the car into a snowstorm and knocked himself out by running into a tree branch. When they called Frank Sinatra, Senior and demanded a ransom, Sinatra offered them $1 million, and they tried to talk him down to $240,000, because that's what it said in the plan.

Barry Keenan

We sent Frank to a gas station pay phone to get the next instructions about how to get his son back. So, you know, Frank Sinatra, Senior and the FBI go racing down to Carson City, 30 minutes away. And in about 15 minutes, John started calling for Frank Sinatra to the gas station. And the mechanic at the gas station-- who was busy and by himself-- kept answering the phone. And this caller was asking for Frank Sinatra, the most famous entertainer in the world at the time, and the guy got very angry when this caller was calling back time and again for Frank Sinatra.

Ira Glass

He thinks it's a phony phone call.

Barry Keenan

He thinks it's a prank of some sort. And so, as soon as he hung up from the third time after letting John have it with four-letter words, before he even gets back to his car, in screeches two FBI cars and Frank Sinatra, Senior jumps out of the car and says, "My name is Frank Sinatra, have I had any calls?" And you can imagine the reaction that that poor mechanic had. So finally, one more time, John called back, and this time Frank answered the phone. And John told them what the next step was going to be.

Ira Glass

Barry, did it did occur to you that the person who you were kidnapping and their family would be traumatized and frightened?

Barry Keenan

No, because the way that the plan of operation was designed, and the way I wrote it out in the script, it was always supposed to be just between Frank Sinatra, Senior, Frank Sinatra, Junior, my group of people and the FBI. The mother and sisters were not to be involved in the kidnapping. And based upon what I knew about Frank Sinatra, Senior, and the family, and so forth, I did not think that he would let his wife know if he thought the kidnapping was going to be resolved in a matter of a few hours.

Ira Glass

I wonder if the fact that you constructed such an elaborate web of logic with your business plan, that made the kidnapping seem so reasonable and even good for the Sinatras, I wonder if that prevented you at the time from comprehending what you were putting them through. You know?

Barry Keenan

Absolutely. I had it so rationalized and justified. I had God's approval. This thing was being divinely blessed.

Ira Glass

What was the sign that it had God's approval?

Barry Keenan

God talked to me, particularly when I would go to church and light a candle and be still and I would hear God talking to me and telling me what I had to do. And He was very definite about nobody can be hurt, and I had to pay the money back.

Ira Glass

As you've gotten older, and sobered up, and gotten wiser, does God still talk to you?

Barry Keenan

Oh, no. No, that went away when I got sober, and also got psychiatric help. When I hear voices nowadays, I don't pay any attention to them.

Ira Glass

After successfully getting $240,000 in ransom money and returning Frank Sinatra, Junior safely home, Barry Keenan and his accomplices were caught. Keenan was sentenced to life plus 75 years, but was released after just four years because his psychiatric evaluation found that he was legally insane at the time of his crime. He returned to the real estate business. He was wildly successful, became a millionaire. A few years ago, he sold his kidnapping story to the movie studios for several times more than the original ransom amount.

He showed us papers indicating that all of his profits from the sale would go to charity, and says that he agreed to a movie deal only to set the record straight about a lie that he told during his trial back in the 1960s. Back then, he says, he spread a rumor that the kidnapping was only a publicity stunt staged by the Sinatras and not a real kidnapping. Under the Son of Sam law, which says that convicted felons cannot make a profit from selling their own stories, Frank Sinatra, Junior challenged Keenan's contract with the movie studios.

In February 2002, the California Supreme Court ruled in Keenan's favor, clearing the way for the movie to be made, but it never was. The studio, Columbia Pictures, put the project on hold. And then, in 2003, Showtime made the story into a film with William H. Macy and David Arquette. Barry Keenan got no money from the deal.

[MUSIC - "ALL OF ME" BY FRANK SINATRA]

Act Four. A Fate Most Of Us Fear.

Ira Glass

Act Four, A Fate Most of Us Fear. Years ago, living in Canada, Jonathan Goldstein had a job selling the Montreal Gazette newspaper over the telephone. It was the normal kind of Plan B that most of us have had at one point or another. And when he took the job, he did not realize that it would become a 10-year chapter in his life.

Jonathan Goldstein

When you're a little kid, you never decide that one day you're going to be a telemarketer. It's not something that you plan. It just happens, like the way going bald just happens, or the way falling down a flight of stairs just happens. One minute you're at the top of the landing, and the next you're at the bottom. And you'll be damned if you can remember each one of the individual steps that led you between the two.

All during the time I was working at the Gazette, I found it nearly impossible to bring myself to tell anyone I was a telemarketer. When people asked what it was I did for a living, I'd simply say that I was a salesman. And when they asked what it was that I sold, I would say dreams. And then I would look at them for a moment, quizzically. Then I would say that I was only joking. And then they would say, oh. And I would become uncomfortable. And then they would become uncomfortable. Then they would stop asking me anything.

As you might expect, the hard thing about working at the Gazette was that there was just so much rejection. Even though you were calling almost 200 people a day, 98% of whom wanted to see you dead, you still had to bring a certain hopefulness to each call, a feeling that this one, the call you were making right now, could be the one. It was almost like trying to hypnotize yourself into believing that something as certain as, say, gravity didn't exist. And the next time you drop the apple, it won't fall to the ground, but it will float up into the sky like a helium balloon.

I would often pretend the people on the other end of the line were sock puppets to soften the sting of their hang up. I once shared this thought with a girl who had just started working there. Pretend there's a little sock puppet on the other end, I encouraged, all cute with Coke button eyes, holding the phone in his mouth. She considered the logic of this for a moment. How does he talk with a phone in his mouth? she asked. And for this I really didn't have an answer.

In the pitching room, we all wore these headsets that were connected to computers. As soon as we hung up, the computer automatically dialed the next number so that we were always speaking to someone without respite. Our boss was a man named Ray, and if you made two or three sales a day, then you were doing OK and Ray wouldn't scream at you. Generally, I found the repetitiousness of the job comforting. You're never at a loss for words. You always know what you're going to say, because what you're going to say is, "Hi, my name is Jonathan, and I wanted to know if you're interested in reading the Gazette newspaper."

One time, a woman who answered the phone would not believe I wasn't a friend of hers named Christopher. Stop playing around Christopher, she said. But I'm not Christopher, I responded. Will you cut it out, Christopher? After several minutes of this, I had to hang up on her. I knew that Christopher was going to get it for that.

From my very first week at the Gazette, I was surprised to discover that I had a natural gift for sales. Whatever I was and whatever aspirations I had before I started working there, I became an instant Gazette legend, sometimes selling up to 10 subscriptions in the course of a shift. I got on the phone with people, and I made them want to listen. I joked with the men and flirted with the women. I gently cajoled them, bundling them up in my good strong telemarketing arms, and tossed them up into the air where they screamed delightedly, only to land back down with a brand-new Gazette subscription.

I would look around me at the other sad sacks in the pitching room and wonder how they could go on just scraping by with their two or three sales a day. Telemarketing had been my back-up plan, but now I found myself faced with the uncomfortable fact that it was what I was truly good at.

I got myself a lucky ballpoint pen, and spent half a day's pay on a fancy attache case to put my leads in. I even had a special way of filling out the order forms that involved clear capital letters and x's-- never checks-- in the boxes marked Visa or MasterCard. There was a bell on Ray's desk for when you made a sale. And when I made a sale, I had a special way of hitting it with the balls of my fingers that made it sound as crisp and clean as a glockenspiel.

I always kept to the one tap per sale rule. I respected the bell. Not like some of the other guys who rang the crap out of it like they were five-year-olds riding their first two-wheeler.

The office manager was a man named Billy. Billy was a fat, loud-mouthed Greek man in a skin-tight Hawaiian shirt. One of Billy's jobs was to keep us inspired with pep talks. Billy would explain to us when he first started working at the Gazette, he was sitting right where we were. And that now he makes as much money as a plumber. And that, in fact, we all had the opportunity to make as much as a plumber. I'm going out and eating a big fat steak tonight, he would say, just like the way at the end of a day a plumber does.

Eventually, as happens to all the mighty, I fell. Even now I can't explain it. Hubris, my diet, perhaps I started taking myself too seriously and lost my sense of fun. Who knows? But whatever the case, I suddenly found myself so desperate for sales that at the end of a shift, still will nothing, I would order the paper to my own address and then cancel it the following week.

It's a very real thing, the stink of desperation. It's an actual odor. And people can smell it over the phone line. Your jokes become a little more hurried and forced, your confidence a little more false, your pauses more awkward. I soon found myself gazing longingly at the filled-out order sheets clutched in the fist of the new office superstar. A 17-year-old whose phone name was Candy, who'd stroll past my desk humming "Taking Care of Business."

Now, when I came back from the bathroom during my shift, Ray would ask me what the hell took so long. The toilet was for closers.

A few weeks ago, I got home and found this on my answering machine.

Man

Hello? [HANGS UP]

Jonathan Goldstein

When the telemarketer realized that there was no one there to pitch to, he stopped himself. But I want you to listen again and notice the long pause before he actually puts the phone down.

Man

Hello? [HANGS UP]

Jonathan Goldstein

He says hello, he inhales, and before he puts the phone down, he pauses. As someone who's sold over the telephone for close to 10 years, I can tell you that the pause between the hello and the hang up is a moment of reprieve. You start to talk, you realize you've gotten an answering machine. And then before you actually hang up, you steal a moment. You take shelter in those few seconds before you hit the hang up button and the onslaught of automatically dialed phone numbers begins anew, delivering the voices of people who will very soon hate you directly into the ear phones of your headset and straight into your brain.

I played the message over and over, listening to it, not to better hear the chaos of the pitching room, but to try and imagine what was going through his head. And at the same time, I tried to remember what went through my own head during those pauses. It was always sort of like that moment in a horror film where the guy who's having his head held down in a bathtub of water pops up one last time and goes, [INHALING] before he is pushed back down and is drowned forever.

Since the numbers were automatically dialed, you never knew who was going to pop up in your headset. One time I got my friend Mark Zelnicker on the phone, a guy who I hadn't seen in years. Mark was in my junior high phys ed class. He used to get so excited while playing [? hog ball ?] that he'd clutch the ball to his chest and roll around the floor drooling. I tried to keep him on the phone as long as possible, never saying who I was, gleaning whatever I could about his life.

I could hear his kids playing around, trying to steal the phone from him. And all throughout, I was shocked by how unfailingly decent he was with me. I felt like the anonymous stranger who shows up on Christmas day to test a family's kindness. Mark didn't buy the paper, but he didn't rush me off either. It felt good to know that Mark Zelnicker had grown up to be a really nice man.

There was also one time I got my grandmother. After several minutes of talking about how weird it was that I had gotten her number out of all the numbers in the city, she told me that she had just learned that morning that my grandfather's cancer had come back. I looked across the room, where Billy the manager was eating french fries, and someone else was ringing the bell on Ray's desk. After I hung up the phone with her, not a second later another call popped into my headset.

Hi, I am calling from the Gazette, I said. My grandfather would be dead within the year.

And then one day I got my own number. I can't explain it better than to say that having that happen is sort of like rounding the corner and running into yourself. At first you don't quite recognize that it's you. You look a little shorter, and less handsome. But then all of a sudden, in one naked instant, you're face-to-face with yourself. I was the telemarketing dog that had caught its own telemarketing tail. The message that I left myself, because you just can't resist leaving yourself a message, went something like, Yep, here I am. God, this is awful. This is horrible. This has to mean something.

But of course it didn't mean anything. And then, for the next several seconds, I listened to the silence on the other end of the line, my own line, as I worried about the rapid fire calls that would start again the moment I hung up. When I got back home, I had exactly two messages on my machine. One was the message from myself. I was surprised by how loud the background noise was behind me, and how much smaller I sounded than I had imagined all these years.

The other message was from my mother. She was imploring me to go back to school and become a speech therapist.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein is the host of the CBC radio show, Wiretap, which you can also hear on some public radio stations in this country. He has a new book coming out in April called Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!

Act Five. The Accursed Items.

Ira Glass

Act Five, The Accursed Items. It's not just human beings who fail to achieve the fate that they thought that fate had in store for them. Most everything does. Most everything eventually ends up somewhere that it was not designed to go, serving a purpose that it was not meant for, even if that purpose is just landfill. We end our program today with this brief inventory from J. Robert Lennon of inanimate objects who have left their Plan A far behind, and now inhabit a permanent Plan B.

J. Robert Lennon

A bottle of pain reliever brought on a business trip that proves, at the moment it is most needed, to be filled not with pain reliever but with buttons. An accomplished forgery of a famous painting that was thought to have been lost in a 1965 mansion fire, which now hangs in the largest gallery of a major American art museum. Sneakers, hanging from the power line, with one half of a boy's broken glasses stuffed into each toe. A Minnie Mouse doll you found by the roadside and brought home, intending to run it through the washer and give it your infant son, but which looked no less forlorn after washing and was abandoned on a basement shelf, only to be found by your son eight years later and mistaken for a once-loved toy that he had himself forsaken, leading to his first real experience of guilt and shame.

Love letters seized by federal agents in an unsuccessful drug raid, tested in a lab for traces of cocaine, exhaustively read for references to drug contacts, sealed in a labeled plastic bag and packed, along with a plush bear holding a plastic heart, into an unlabeled cardboard box, itself loaded into a truck with hundreds of similar boxes when the police headquarters was moved and forever lost.

Nude Polaroid's of a 13-year-old female cousin. An icicle preserved in the freezer by a child which, when discovered months later, is thought to be evidence of a problem with the appliance, leading to a costly and inconclusive diagnostic exam by a repair man. A gay porno magazine thrown onto a ball field from a car window, and perused with great interest by the adolescent members of both teams, two of whom meet in the woods some weeks later to reproduce the tableaus they have seen, leading to a gradual understanding that they are, in fact, gay, an incident, the memory of which causes one of the two, when he is well into a life that is disappointing emotionally, professionally, and sexually, to fling a gay porno magazine out his car window as he passes an occupied ball field on his way to what will be an unsuccessful job interview.

A biscuit, crushed into the slush of a Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot. The orange toboggan, whisking her to her death.

A resume that betrays its author as utterly unqualified for the position for which she has applied, but which, because it smells good, leads its reader, a desperate, experientially undernourished middle manager at an internet-based retail corporation to invite her into the office for an interview that, although it further betrays the applicant's complete unsuitability for the job, provides the middle manager with the physical impression to compliment the good smell, which impression is intensely exciting, forcing him to hire her as a supplemental secretary, much to the bafflement, chagrin, and eventual disgust of his extant secretary who, during her employer's lunch hour, removes the resume in question from his files and personally delivers it to the CEO, and who is with the CEO when he barges into the middle manager's office and finds the unsuitable supplemental secretary standing beside him, crying silently with her dress half off, while he sits in his reclining office chair, sweating profusely, and holding a plastic letter opener in a threatening manner.

The house plant that will not die. 50 pairs of old blue jeans found at secondhand clothing stores and brought, at great expense, on a trip to eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics where, rumor had it, old blue jeans could be sold for a lot of money, but where this was no longer true as so many previous visitors had heard the same rumor and done the same thing, creating a glut of old blue jeans which were not even all that stylish there anymore, and causing the entire trip to be ruined by the necessity of hauling around these huge suitcases full of other people's jeans which smelled kind of bad, as if those other people were currently wearing them.

The urine sample produced for the canceled doctor's appointment, and forgotten in the back of the fridge.

My eyeglasses, covered with a thickening layer of dust that I never seem to notice, that I simply adjust to, until, at last, I clean them out of habit and discover a new world sharp and filled with detail, whose novelty and clarity I forget about completely within 15 minutes.

Your signature, rendered illegible by disease.

Ira Glass

J. Robert Lennon's latest books are the novel Castle, and the story collection Pieces for the Left Hand. Both are coming out next month.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Starlee Kine, Lisa Pollak and myself with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, Jonathan Goldstein and Diane Cook. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Our production manager is Seth Lind. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Andy Dixon.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

The Ron Carlson story I mentioned at the beginning of the show is called "Plan B for the Middle Class" from the book of the same name. Our website, where you can listen to our programs for free or sign up for our free weekly podcasts-- and if you've never signed up for a podcast, it's easier than you think-- www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

WBEZ management oversight for a program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, whose motto for the WBEZ staff now, as always, is--

Ryan Mcdonough

Oh, oh, oh. Bite it like you mean it. Like cave woman.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.