Transcript

222:

Suckers
Transcript

Originally aired 09.27.2002

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Here's the kind of thing that changes you from one kind of person into another. Adam and Wendy had been looking for a house for years, which is what you have to do if you don't have a lot of money. And finally, they found this house that they liked. And the broker showed it to them before it came into the market, so the actually had a shot at getting the house. And then, they were completely ripped off, but ripped off in this way that seems almost calculated to get inside their very molecules and rip them off at the cellular level.

Adam

The owners of the house, they were very warm and friendly with us, and--

Wendy

Paternal.

Adam

Paternal, they were very paternal. In fact, they reminded me of my parents in a way. They were an academic couple.

Wendy

She seemed like an old hippie, which made me feel like, I don't know, she's pretty genuine. She wore clogs and just seemed kind of cool, and long gray hair, and--

Adam

They said to us at one point, "You know, we have great compassion for you two because we've got children your own age. And so we have great compassion for what you're doing."

Wendy

But it seemed really genuine at the time.

Ira Glass

An inspector came and pointed out a few problems with the house. For instance, the owners had said that the roof was brand new. But in fact, the inspector said, it had simply been painted silver and was a web of cracks and problems. The steps leading up to the house were being rebuilt, but the inspector said that the workmanship was no good. It would not last the winter.

And then there was the question of the abandoned house next door. What was going to happen there? They understood that they knew nothing about it, nothing at all. But might it affect the value of this house? The owners insisted on talking out the problems face-to-face.

Wendy

And they invited us over and gave us coffee. And we sat right in this room.

Adam

We sat right here. I think we sat in their couch, which was where our couch now is. And we looked them in the eye, and they sat across from us. And that's when I got the first sense that they were playing us.

Wendy

They didn't believe the inspector. They said, that's crazy, we have a new roof. And this guy that is doing the stoop is doing a very good job in fact.

Adam

They made the point that the roof wasn't leaking on them. Therefore, it was not, as far as they were concerned, a problem. Therefore, why should it really enter the negotiations?

Ira Glass

Negotiations went back and forth for weeks. Wendy and Adam barely got their way on anything. But they bought the house anyway because they knew that if they didn't, somebody else would. They move in. And then, the very first time that it rains, streams of brown water come pouring into the house.

Wendy

So the water started dripping from there, where you can see the brown stains. Water was coming down here.

Adam

The wall was bubbling out with a big pocket of water inside, and the plaster was falling.

Wendy

I just felt totally defeated when I saw that water. I couldn't believe it, how they just kept saying, the roof is new, you guys are crazy. You're totally overreacting. You can't listen to contractors who tell you you need a new roof. Yeah, you need a new roof. Yeah, right. Well, we've never had this. This place has never-- we never had a leak.

And as soon as the water started, I started to really look at the ceiling. And I noticed that, wait a minute, you can see where it was leaking before. I had never noticed. It was very subtle, just a little bit of yellowing. And someone had repaired it. So they did lie to us.

Ira Glass

The second day they were in the house, Adam was walking up the steps to the front door, and he heard a sound, the steps cracking under his feet. Their first weekend in the house, they woke up to a different sound, the sound of jackhammers. It turns out that not only was there construction starting on the house next door, it would extend that house 15 feet back, blocking out all of the western sunlight from Adam and Wendy's backyard. And if that were not enough, neighbors informed them that the previous owners knew all about it, in fact, had led an organizing drive on the block to stop this construction.

And what makes the whole thing so galling is they're still living in the home of the people who took advantage of them. Every day, they're reminded of these people. They smell their smell in the closet. When the drains back up, it's their hair and grease.

Adam

We've gone through the house, over all the surfaces with razor blades, scraping off the fingerprints and the dirt. And it's obsessive. We've gotten overly meticulous about it.

Wendy

But every time I open those doors over there, I think of them. I think of their greasy hands, every time, even though I have scrubbed. In fact, over here, you can see I became really crazy, and I started scrubbing these cabinets. And I actually got the finish off of it, I was scrubbing so hard.

Ira Glass

Now, Wendy and Adam, I should say, are the sort of do-gooders who, when they move out of an apartment they've been renting, they'll hire a cleaner to make sure that the place is spotless for the next tenants. When they sell a car, they get that extra brake job for $600 before putting it on the market, not because they necessarily think it'll get a better price, and usually it does not, but because they think that it is right. They believe in deals where everybody walks away feeling like the deal was fair. Or anyway, that's the kind of people they used to be before they bought a house.

Adam

That's changed the way I deal with people now. I'm bitter about it. I don't trust anyone anymore.

Ira Glass

In every negotiation, the way you see it now is, somebody's going to be the sucker.

Adam

Yeah, I feel that way now. I feel that there's a winner and a loser.

Wendy

That you're either going to get screwed by somebody, or you're screwing somebody.

Ira Glass

Just last weekend, they went to a big home supplies hardware chain, a chain where they have gotten terrible advice in the past, terrible service. They needed some bolts. And, filled with anger and a spirit of vengeance, they simply stole them. The opportunity presented itself. They took advantage.

And my friend, it felt good to steal. It felt good to make somebody else the sucker. They think they're going to do it again. That is what they have learned from the previous owners of their house.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it is This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Today on our program, Suckers. There are some people who see the world as a place where everybody can work out their differences and come to settlements, where everybody is happy, everybody getting along. And there are people who believe it's eat or be eaten, screw or be screwed. Today, the chasm that divides those two worldviews.

They both can't be right. Either the world is dog-eat-dog or not. Today, we try to figure out which it is. Stay with us.

Act One. No Receipt, No Surrender.

Ira Glass

Act One, No Receipt, No Surrender. Perhaps you're familiar with the story of a certain New Jersey family. They live in a lovely suburban home. The neighbors have no idea how all the nice stuff they own arrives there, or if they suspect, they keep their mouths shut. The attitude of the head of the household, sometimes there are opportunities to take, and you take them. Or maybe you don't know the family I'm talking about.

Sheila

I wouldn't even call it a crime. People do it all the time.

Ira Glass

This is a woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, Sheila, for reasons that will become all too clear to you. I should say that she does not make a living off of her little random opportunities. Her husband is a doctor, and he supports the family. But she embodies the kind of worldview that we're talking about in this week's show.

She's the sort of person who talks hotels into giving her discounts when, really, they have no reason to, who shows up at famous restaurants where she has no reservation, sneaks a look at the names in the reservation book, and then claims to be one of the people listed in order to be seated right away. She's talked her way into sold-out events. She's talked her way into the Getty Museum. Here's a typical scam.

Sheila

I had been shopping with my older daughter. And I insisted that she buy this most gorgeous Geoffrey Beene outfit that had the Saks Fifth Avenue hangtag price of, I think, $3,800. And at Loehmann's, it was, oh, about $200. And I said, "Oh, Susan, you really have to have this."

OK, well, she took it, and, of course, as luck would have it, she never put it on her back. About a year or so later, I said to my husband, "Would you mind detouring into the city, and we'll go to the Geoffrey Beene boutique at Saks?" And he said, OK. He doesn't generally approve of things like this, but I really didn't tell him what the purpose was.

So I took the garment upstairs to the boutique, and I spoke to the buyer, told them that this had been purchased at another Saks, and I would like to return it. And he said, "That's not a problem." And he looked at the hangtag, and he said, "Well, the item has been marked down. It's now, I think, about $2,200."

Ira Glass

No longer $3,800.

Sheila

Right. I said, "Well, that's all right. Just credit my account."

Ira Glass

That was a $2,000 profit. You paid $200 for it at Loehmann's.

Sheila

Right, right, right.

Ira Glass

Now, your daughter Jen is sitting in the studio with you. Jen, do you just want to give your perspective on this, what this was like growing up with this happening all the time?

Jen

I knew from a very young age that my mother wasn't necessarily like other mothers. My mother had a very large Country Squire station wagon when I was growing up. And oftentimes, the back of the car would be filled with things that were not illegally gotten, but certainly questionably gotten.

I remember very clearly when I was very young, there was a promotion at a bank. And if you opened a checking account, you could get, I think, one blender or one toaster, one of something. But my mother thought, well, why get one, when I could open multiple checking accounts and get a whole bunch of them?

And I remember returning to our house, I must have been maybe five or six, with the trunk filled with these blenders or toasters. And we already had a blender and a toaster. We didn't need multiples. But my mother has built this warehouse in our basement where she literally outfitted the homes of all of my cousins, who are all older than I am. I don't think anybody bought anything off the shelf.

Ira Glass

How often will you do something like this? Will you have something like this going, say, once a week or so?

Sheila

Oh, no.

Jen

Mom?

Sheila

No, a few times during the year.

Jen

Mom, I would say, conservatively, 24 times a year, you've got some scam running.

Ira Glass

What else has your mom done that you could never see yourself doing, when it comes to these kinds of things?

Jen

Oh, boy.

Sheila

The Getty.

Jen

Yeah, the Getty was a big one. My mother and I were at a wedding in California, in Los Angeles, and my mother very much wanted to go to the Getty. And I was keen on going to the Getty, but knew that you have two options. You either make a reservation months in advance to get a parking space, or you park at the bottom of a hill and take a bus up, which seems to me not the worst thing in the world. But my mother says to the attendant, we're on the list. We're staying at the Bel Air, and I believe the concierge made a reservation. I should be on the list. We have a parking space.

And clearly, we have not made a reservation. I know we have not made a reservation. And I am livid. And we drive in, and that was a very tense moment.

Ira Glass

And then, what are you saying to him to--

Sheila

Oh, but it's not possible. These reservations were made six months ago. I would not just show up here without a reservation. Do I look like that kind of a person?

Jen

With me rolling my eyes next to her. How he didn't see that and know that this was a scam, I have no idea.

Sheila

I happen to look like a very honorable, decent sort of a person. But I have found a way to get around the system, which many people are reluctant to do.

Ira Glass

And will you just keep going until they give you what you want? Or will you stop at some point?

Sheila

Yes, I am very tenacious.

Ira Glass

And so your method is you just don't stop.

Sheila

Right, because I won't take no for an answer. I just wear the person down, I suppose. And very often, it doesn't take very long.

Ira Glass

For you, it's not about the money. It's just that it's like a sport for you, right?

Sheila

It definitely is. It certainly is not about the money. My dad was a very successful executive. And he always said to me, if you walk into a place and hold your head up high, nobody will ever question because you look as though you belong where you are. And that has served me in good stead. Wherever I have wanted to get into, I have been successful in getting in.

Ira Glass

Jen, do you sort of go too far in the other direction?

Jen

Yeah, absolutely. Like I'll pay double.

Ira Glass

You'll pay double.

Jen

If something's going on sale tomorrow, that's OK. You know what? I'll pay what it costs today. It's fine. Don't worry about it. I always overtip. Yeah.

Ira Glass

I can't tell, hearing you talk about this, do you wish you were more like your mom?

Jen

In a lot of ways, I really do. Because she's fearless. And sometimes I think, like when I'm working, if I had my mother's steel stomach, I would probably be much better at what I do. Or conversely, she would be really good at what I do. But I just don't have it in me.

Ira Glass

Well, after our interview, since Jen said that she wished that she were more like her mom, we got the idea to have Jen's mom give her a little lesson, a training exercise in being her. Here it is. Here's Jen.

Jen

We decided to try something simple. My assignment was to return a bright yellow sweater my boyfriend had received as a gift four years ago. It was from a high-end clothing store called Burberry. It was the type of sweater that might have been appropriate on a public golf course in Scotland in the mid-'80s. Suffice it to say, I hated the sweater.

This is what we had working for us. The sweater had originally been purchased at Burberry and had a Burberry label. There was even paper folded into the sweater, printed with the trademark logo. On the downside, we had no receipt and no hangtag. And of course, the sweater was four years out of fashion and looked it, none of which fazed my mother.

In fact, she thought the whole thing so easy, she decided to up the ante. She wanted me to try for a cash refund instead of a store credit. She was going to show me how.

Jen

I don't have your skill, I don't know.

Sheila

I would have preferred the raincoat.

Jen

My mom showed up at my office wearing a crisply pressed blouse, gigantic Jackie O sunglasses, and a pair of knockoff Burberry plaid pants that simultaneously embodied her two biggest beliefs in life. Always dress the part, and never pay full price. The training session started with some role-playing.

Jen

OK, so I'll be me, and you'll be the Burberry's manager. Hi, I have this sweater that my boyfriend got as a gift a couple of years ago.

Sheila

I don't know that I would say a couple of years ago. I wouldn't say when it was purchased. Play dumb. He just gave it to you because you were going to be in New York and asked that you return it.

Jen

OK, so we'll start over again. Hi, I'd like to return this sweater.

Sheila

That's good. That's good. I like that. Yes, my dear, how can I help you?

Jen

This isn't the way my mother usually works. She believes in pure improv. But for my benefit, she concocts a backstory for me. It's astonishingly complicated.

Apparently, I live in Arkansas with my Arkansas businessman boyfriend, who got this sweater as a gift, along with a lot of other Burberry clothing. Anyone who knows him knows it's his favorite store. I'm only in town for a day, and I rarely come to New York, so I want cash, not credit. And by the way, I don't know when the sweater was purchased, but he received it recently. It's such a crazy collection of facts that I have a hard time keeping it all straight.

Jen

OK, so from the top, here's what I'm remembering. I live in Arkansas. My boyfriend lives in Arkansas. He's in business in Arkansas. He doesn't travel to New York. I understand that it's--

Sheila

Has no occasion. Has no occasion.

Jen

What's the importance of the phrase "has no occasion"?

Sheila

Because it makes him sound like maybe he is a more important kind of a person, rather than some yokel. Make him sound like he's a CEO of some major company, but likes small town living and does not like the city and doesn't feel comfortable--

Jen

This is method scamming. We head over to Burberry's. I'm wearing a hidden microphone, and my stomach immediately starts to hurt.

Jen

OK, so I'm from Arkansas, and I'm only visiting.

Burberry is a sleek, luxe store filled with coiffed salespeople and stylish Japanese tourists. There's plenty of taupe cashmere muffling the sound system. Everything is ordered, serene. I'm directed to the manager.

Jen

I have a sweater that my boyfriend received as a gift. And we live out of state. And he asked me to return it while I'm in New York.

The manager barely glances at me as he informs me of their policy. No receipt, no returns, no exceptions. I muster up the courage to try again and instantly forget every lesson my mother taught me. I volunteer information. I say things that could be used against me. I can't keep the facts of my fake story straight.

Jen

It's possible it was purchased a little while ago. I don't have a receipt. And I'm actually not even sure who he got it from. So I'm not-- yeah, I have no idea to tell you the truth. He got a whole bunch of presents. I don't know.

All I want to do is get out of there. The guy is, after all, just doing his job. No receipt, no returns, no exception. I nod feebly and wonder why we don't just give the sweater to Goodwill.

I can feel that it's killing my mom to see me struggle like this, but she's trying to hold back. Finally the manager says, look, for all he knows, the sweater wasn't even bought at this store. It could have just come from some outlet. And that does it. My mom, unable to contain herself any longer, steps in.

Sheila

Oh, I can assure you that this was not purchased at an outlet. I don't know about outlets, because I'm not an outlet shopper.

Jen

My mom saying she's not an outlet shopper is like saying she's not an air breather. My mom spends all of five minutes dealing with the manager before deciding it's a waste of time. Her cardinal rule is if you want something done right, you have to go straight to the top. Positioning herself firmly in front of the store's only cash register, she pulls out her cell phone and calls Burberry corporate headquarters.

Sheila

Hi. I'm sorry to bother you. I'm trying to help my daughter's boyfriend.

Jen

I want to climb into the revolving rack of raincoats and disappear.

Sheila

And then when he heard that my daughter was coming to New York, he asked her to bring it back to any one of the Burberry stores.

Jen

The lies fell from her like notes in an improvisational jazz saxophone solo. She's on a tear, and she will stop at nothing.

Sheila

No, he received a whole bunch of gifts from Burberry. It happens to be his favorite store. And your manager can tell you that I'm wearing one of your pairs of pants today coincidentally.

Jen

Also coincidentally, people are starting to clear away from us. I'm sure the only thing the manager would attest to at this point is that he wants me, my mother, and her fake, Burberry, plaid pants the hell out of there.

Sheila

Well, he's in Arkansas. I'm here in New York with the sweater. You know, there is a time difference between here and Arkansas.

Jen

It's 12:00 in New York, which makes it 11:00 in Arkansas.

Sheila

Well, I have been in many situations in my life, from Chanel to Givenchy, and I have never had a situation like this. I am a faithful Burberry shopper. Well, because I'm leaving the city today. I'm going out of state. And I probably won't be back for another year, so I was hoping--

Jen

She's on the phone for over 20 minutes. Burberry's return policy is designed precisely with people like my mother in mind. They just keep repeating over and over, no receipt, no returns, no exceptions. At this point, I'm surprised to find that I'm getting mad. The nerve of them. After an hour and a half, we finally leave, defeated.

Jen

I think you did really well, Mom. I couldn't have-- I gave up. I was dying inside. I was definitely like, oh, God. Just get us out of here. I don't want this mean man looking at me like this anymore. I feel ridiculous. I don't know what-- I'm trying to feel what a person from Arkansas would be feeling. I'm no help at all.

Sheila

I really think that since everything jived, the label-- they didn't have a hangtag. Well, maybe that's the way they wrap their gifts, without a hangtag.

Jen

Hear that? That's why I think my mom is so good at this. She truly believed she was in the right. She was actually furious at Burberry for not falling for her lies. She tells me this is unheard of. They've just lost a valuable customer. Never mind that she was never an actual customer in the first place. Later, back at the office, she chalks up our failure to one small strategic mistake.

Sheila

The reason we didn't get satisfaction is because he knew that my pants were knockoffs.

Jen

I think so too. I think you pushed it there. I think that's where we lost our credibility. It was a good try, Mom. It was a good effort.

What started as a lark for me, a little mother-daughter bonding time, escalated far beyond that for her. It was now a question of honor. She shot off letters to the CEO, the CFO, and, to leave no stone unturned, the mayor of New York. She refused to read these letters to me, and I'm terrified to imagine what she said.

They must have been some letters though. The salesman called a week later to say that they were still working on the return. He called a few days after that to tell her that there was a credit waiting for her in the Spring Street store. They credited us for $59, which was brilliant on their part, because they paid less than the sweater was worth while getting my mother out of their hair forever. Honestly, if they paid her a dollar, she'd have declared victory.

The problem now is I can't go get the credit, because I'm supposed to be in Arkansas. Not only that, but the store is just three blocks from my job. I'm so afraid they'll recognize me, I try to avoid their street completely. When I can't, I cross the street, so they won't see me. I know my mom wouldn't hesitate to stroll right by.

Act Two. The Stereo Type.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Stereo Type. The sucker worldview is that when an opportunity presents itself, you and I should grab that opportunity. And if we do not, we are suckers.

Unfortunately, this mentality could also lead us to become big suckers because, of course, there is no better mark than somebody who thinks that he is about to beat the system. There's no bigger sucker than somebody who thinks that he is about to make someone else into a sucker. Well, with that in mind, we have this little fable about suckerdom from our producer, Alex Blumberg.

Alex Blumberg

My friend Shane has this story about being a sucker and then getting the chance to get revenge on the people who suckered him. It starts when he was just 23. He had gotten one of his first adult paychecks, which seemed huge at the time. He was wearing a new suit that he'd bought with the money. He was walking down the street, thinking, this adult life is a breeze. Never before or since did he feel that the world was such a benevolent and bountiful place.

Shane Dubow

And I'm approached by a van full of young guys in their, say, 20s. And it's got a stencil on the side. And they approach me, and they're like, "Hey, buddy. You want to buy some speakers?" And these guys really have it together. They're in uniforms. They have their names on the thing. The van is stenciled with the name of some company.

And these aren't speakers that they've just pulled out of someone's living room, and the wires are dangling. They're boxed. They're packaged. They have shipping invoices. They have a whole clipboard full of delivery sites and inventory and this.

And they have this whole spiel. And the spiel is, "Dude, you know, we're, like, the delivery guys. And the dudes at the loading dock put too many speakers on the truck. And if we get rid of these before we get back, nobody knows, dude. Dude, we're just trying to unload these fast." And then it's like, "These are $1,200 speakers. We'll give them to you for five bills, buddy."

Alex Blumberg

Shane played along, acted like he's down, he's been through this before, he's one of them.

Shane Dubow

We're all dudes. We all know, we all speak that language. So I say, "Well, I want to hear them." So at this point, I'm just out of college, about two, three months. And I am living at my mother's house. And we're pretty far away from there. She lives in the suburbs. We're in the city. So I say, "Well, if you want to follow me, we can go try them out." And they're like, "All right."

And so they follow me all the way back to my mother's house, which is a significant drive. And I get to my mom's house. And I'm looking at their setup, because I'm trying to think, can I plug the speakers in here to listen? And I can't. There's not enough wire to take it out of the wall.

They follow me to the audio store. And I buy some speaker wire. And we bring it home.

These guys are tenacious. If this is a scam, these guys are wasting a lot of time. It's getting harder to imagine it's a scam the longer they stick with it.

And I bring one of the speakers inside. And I plug it in. And it sounds, it just sounds fine. It doesn't sound one way or another. And I go out and I say, "It sounds good, I guess." And they've got it in your mind that it's going to just blow you away. And I think I even said something mildly, not critical, but just unimpressed, like, "The low end sounds a little mushy."

And then they have this whole spiel, like, "If you just put in Monster wire, it'll take care of that." The Monster wire, and it's Monster wire. And I don't even know what Monster wire is, but that sounds good to me.

So now it comes to the negotiating part. And again, I'm thinking, "Heh. These guys don't know who they're dealing with." We go back and forth, and finally, it's like, "All right. $300." Because actually, that was the most I could take out on my cash station card.

Alex Blumberg

Did you use that as a bargaining--

Shane Dubow

Yes, yes. I probably said something like, "Well, you know, I can only get $300."

Alex Blumberg

From that point on, they knew they were dealing with a high roller.

Shane Dubow

They had no idea who they were messing with. So now I'm past thinking that it's a speaker scam. Now I'm on to thinking, well, if I do this, I'm somehow criminally liable. And I don't want to get busted. So I--

Alex Blumberg

Because you think they're stolen.

Shane Dubow

Well, these guys, if their story is true, they essentially stole them. So we're at the cash station. I've taken out the money. They're waiting in the car.

I already have the speakers at my place, at my mom's place, that is. And I go to give them the money through the car window. And I've already written down the license plate. And I say, "If I go down, I'm taking you guys with me."

The next thing that happens is I come home to my new speakers. I think, well, I'm going to find out just how much money I essentially made. I'm going to call the high-end audio store and ask them how much they sell the Pro Musica 555, whatever they are.

And I call the guy, I say, "How much do you sell, what do you know about the Pro Musica 555s?" He's like, "Hold on a second." He puts down the phone and comes back. He goes, "Did someone try to sell you those?" And I was like, "Yeah, someone did try to sell me those."

And he's like, "You should get a hold of the San Francisco Chronicle," blah blah blah, and he names a date. And it's this whole coast-to-coast, national, multimillion-dollar scam ring. Apparently, there's training, sort of like those pyramid marketing things. And apparently, it's everywhere. It started on the west coast, and it's moved all the way here.

And I was like, "Awww." And I call information for the number of the place they said they work for that's stenciled on the side of their van, and that was on their shipping invoices and their, you know. And it's like, "No such number exists."

Fast forward a long time, a really long time, like 12 years maybe. And I'm in the parking lot of the fancy supermarket, Whole Foods, in Chicago. And I'm coming out, and it's like a gift from God. It's just so perfect.

The exact same kind of van rolls up, the same kind of stencil, the same sort of guys inside. And out of everyone in this giant parking lot, they go, that's our guy. They come over to me, and they're like, "Dude! We got these speakers. We're the loading dock." It's this whole same spiel.

What you want here is basically, you want a Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson line. You just want something totally cool and chilling that is going to totally stop him for some amount of time. And he's not going to expect it, and it's going to so perfectly cut through all his nonsense that he's just going to run in terror.

And I was also thinking, give him a chance. Don't just gun him down. Let him get a little head start. So I'm like, "I tell you what. I'm going to give you five minutes. And then I'm going to call the cops."

And then he starts mocking me like nobody's business. He's like, "Oooh, tough guy. Think we're scared? Response time is 10 minutes. We'll be out of here," blah blah blah. And all the guys, it was like the monkey cage in the van. They're like, "Oo-oo-oo-ooh. Oh, scary. Oo-oo-oo-ooh."

And it's just, it's just so wrong. It's so embarrassing. And my retreat was so awful. In my mind, I'm slouching and hunchbacked and kind of worming my way to the pay phone. There's no quick calls.

Alex Blumberg

And that's the thing about Bronson. Bronson delivers his line and then shoots somebody or punches somebody. You delivered your line and then walked across a parking lot to make a pay phone call.

Shane Dubow

Yeah, exactly. You want to try me, buddy? Pick up this phone.

Of course, the one bullet I have left in my gun at this point is I can go call. They can be arrested. Meanwhile, I'm looking out the window. And these guys are totally non-plussed. They're going, and they're soliciting other people. They're talking to other folks.

I call 911 from the pay phone. And a dispatcher picks up, and he's like, "911 emergency." I'm like, "Yeah, there's these guys doing this speaker scam at the Whole Foods."

The dispatchers is like-- apparently she doesn't think this is an emergency-- and she's like, "What's the address where you're located at, sir?" And I have no idea. It's a shopping center. How do you know the address?

And every question she asked me just betrays her thinking that this is not an emergency. This is not urgent. And we're not going to jump to it because you call and say these-- and I'm like, "Lady, you don't understand. A friend of mine fell for this scam once. I know what's going on."

Ira Glass

Shane Dubow and Alex Blumberg. Coming up, an entire nation which holds to the sucker mentality. Can you guess which nation I'm talking about? Can you guess? An answer in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Suckers In The Promised Land.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Suckers, in which we ask the question, is the world in fact a place where you either make someone else into a sucker, or you're the sucker. We've arrived at act three of our program, Act Three, Suckers in the Promised Land.

Regular listeners might remember not so long ago when reporter Adam Davidson and I did some stories from Israel. And while he and I were traveling around there, Adam told me to notice how often people use the word freier, which is the Yiddish word for sucker, the Israeli word for sucker. And I have to say, it happens all the time, because the idea of being a sucker is so much more powerful in Israel than it is here. Adam put together this primer on the huge place that freierism has in Israeli life, and how it explains things you didn't even know might need explaining.

Adam Davidson

There is this amazing moment that was caught on film at the Camp David Peace Accords in 2000. President Clinton is leading then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat into some log cabin for more negotiations. At the door, Arafat opens one arm to invite Barak to go in first. Barak stands there, impishly, and extends his own arm, telling Arafat to go in first.

Things degenerated quickly. And you can actually see Barak and Arafat in a sort of fake wrestle, as Barak is trying to physically force Arafat to enter the door before he does. The thing seems irreconcilable until, through the door, you see President Clinton's long arms grab both men and pull them in.

I think some Americans saw this and thought it was a good sign. These two old enemies are now friendly enough for roughhousing. But for any Israeli watching, the message was clear.

Barak was telling Arafat, I'm in control here. I decide who goes in and who doesn't. Nobody tells me when to go in a door. Put another way, I'm not your freier. I'm not your sucker.

Tom Segev

You constantly hear it, constantly. Don't be a freier.

Adam Davidson

This is Tom Segev, an Israeli journalist and historian.

Tom Segev

That is the worst thing for an Israeli to be, a freier, in his own eyes, and also in the eyes of other Israelis. So never, ever be generous. Be always on guard. Somebody is out there to take what is due to you.

Adam Davidson

I think it would be impossible to understand Israelis without understanding the whole notion of freierism. It is at the heart of Israeli culture, affecting how people work, how they shop, how they vote, how they think about themselves and the people around them. Freierism is everywhere.

When I asked my cousin David if he'd ever been a freier, like any Israeli, he first said no. But when I pressed, he surprised me by recalling, in detail, an incident that happened years ago. He was in line to pay at a supermarket, and this woman came up and asked if she could jump in front of him because she only had a few items. He said sure. Then she wheeled over this cart filled with groceries. He realized that she had made him a freier.

He thinks about that woman every time he goes shopping, and he has never let anyone get in front of him since. This was years ago. Again, here's Tom Segev.

Tom Segev

Driving is a situation where the freier instinct really comes out. Driving in Israel is really hell because we will always be afraid that if you let the other guy get ahead, you will be the freier. Why would I let him go ahead of me if I can go ahead? Why should he go ahead of me?

Adam Davidson

From an Israeli point of view, Jews were suckers for 2,000 years in exile, constantly being tricked and persecuted. The whole idea of Israel was to create a place where Jews were in control, where Jews would never again be freiers. And even though Israel is now a powerful state, the fear of being taken advantage of hasn't gone away.

Israelis even fear that their own Jewish government makes them all freiers. Many Israelis say you're a freier if you pay your parking tickets, if you follow traffic laws. Even if you pay your taxes, you can be a freier.

Tom Segev

I've seen people collecting what their dogs do on the sidewalk, even though nobody watches them. And that would probably be considered a freier, somebody who obeys the law, even though there's no policeman around.

Adam Davidson

Israel has an improvisational feel that America lacks. It's a place that hasn't quite settled yet. Every price can be negotiated. Every law is up for debate. Being a freier doesn't just mean getting taken advantage of, like being a sucker does here. It means you don't get how the whole system works.

In America, you're a sucker if you buy your stereo from some guy in a parking lot. But in Israel, it's the exact opposite. Anyone can buy a stereo in a store. You're the only one who knows that Moishe's cousin from Uzbekistan just got a shipment of off-brand stereos with Sony parts, and he's selling them out of his car in the central bus station for cheap. It's not that Israelis are obsessed with getting things cheap per se. It's just that if you don't, you're a freier.

I've always known that. And I've always noticed that when I get to Israel and start speaking Hebrew, my whole personality changes. I'm on guard. I'm ready to yell.

But I don't think I really understood what freierism means until I was checking out of this hotel in Tel Aviv a few years ago. Because of some glitch, the hotel's computer put on my bill all these phone charges to places I've never called in my life, Poland, Uruguay, Sri Lanka. I went to the manager, and in seconds, he and I were screaming at each other.

I'm yelling at him, asking how he can charge for calls I never made. He's yelling back at me. This goes on for a while, until suddenly, I realize that he and I completely agree. He doesn't want me to pay the phone charges. I don't want to pay the phone charges. What we're really fighting over is who gets to say whether or not I pay the phone charges.

He's saying, "I'm the manager. You don't tell me you don't pay the bill. I tell you if you don't pay the bill." And I'm yelling back in Hebrew, "I'm the customer. You don't tell me if I pay the bill. I don't pay any bill that isn't correct." That's when I got it. We weren't fighting over money. We were fighting over who was the freier, him or me.

(INTERVIEWER) ADAM DAVIDSON Have you been a freier recently?

Tom Segev

Probably.

Adam Davidson

Again, here's Tom Segev.

Tom Segev

We are all freiers. We are a nation of freiers actually. We are a nation of freiers. And that's one of the childhood diseases which we have yet to overcome.

Adam Davidson

What do you mean, you're a nation of freiers?

Tom Segev

I can tell you something on a more serious and on a more political level. I think that the Israeli left, the Israeli peace camp feels very much like being the freier these days. Because we have been advocating peace with the Palestinians, we are advocating compromises with the Palestinians. Very often, we have done that sitting in cafes which, hours later, have been blown up by Palestinian terrorists. So I think that many of us feel that Palestinian terrorism has made us, people of the Israeli peace camp, freiers.

Adam Davidson

In fact, the whole peace process is infected with the idea of freierism. Both sides know what the final outcome is going to be, a Palestinian state next to Israel, Israel giving up some settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. But each side has to play its hand to see that it gets the absolute best deal, that they aren't taken for freiers. And of course, any peace depends on both sides trusting each other. And trusting, everyone knows, is the mark of a true freier.

Ira Glass

Adam Davidson in Los Angeles.

Act Four. Mother Sucker.

Ira Glass

We now move on to Act Four, Mother Sucker. We have this story about the meaning of parenthood and the prevalence of being made a sucker from Heather O'Neill.

Heather O'neill

When I was 18 years old, I moved out of my dad's house with a suitcase and headed downtown. And there was nothing anyone could do about it. I grew up in the smallest apartment in the world, with my dad yelling all the time. My two sisters and I all slept in a tiny room with two bunk beds and a cardboard box of clothing that we all shared. After an atrocious childhood, I was delighted to be a grown-up.

My friend, Ben, and I got an apartment. You turned on the oven at 3:00 in the afternoon if you wanted it to be hot by suppertime. We never locked the door. We'd lost all the keys.

After living there peacefully for a couple of months, one night, Ben brought home Jimmy. Jimmy was a 16-year-old boy that he had found at the Electric Bumbum, a club down the street. Ben said that Jimmy had been walking around the bar, asking all the women for a hug. He was carrying a little leather bag that looked like a doctor's kit that he kept his underwear in. He had just escaped from Shawbridge, a juvenile detention center that was north of the city. He had tried to go home, but his mother had moved without telling him her new address.

I could see why Ben had decided to help him out. Jimmy looked like the Little Prince. He had the biggest eyes on the planet. And he always had a surprised expression on his face. He had blond hair that was sticking straight up, and he was small for his age. He was 16, but he looked about 11 or 12. On his pale bicep, he had a homemade tattoo that said Lisa. Lisa was a half-sister he had only met once, five years before.

He also acted like a little kid. That first night when Ben brought him into the living room, I handed him this transparent balloon with white stars on it, and Jimmy went on and on about how it was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever given him. I liked that.

Jimmy needed a place to stay for the night. Ben said he could sleep on the couch. So Jimmy took off his pants and folded them on the coffee table. He was wearing Spider-Man underwear.

"Heather, could you tuck me in?" he asked. I thought he was joking, seeing as he was 16, and I was 18. But he just lay there, perfectly still and straight, waiting for the blankets to be pulled up to his chin.

So I did it. I tucked him in. What else could I do? It was silly, but it also made me feel warm inside. Suddenly, I felt very mature.

When I fantasized about having a kid, it was never about being in a relationship or being pregnant. I always imagined finding a baby in a garbage can and raising it as my own. I would do everything for that little baby and never give it up.

When I was still very little, my mother told me that she was moving to New Orleans. She said she had never been able to do fun things because she had had me when she was only 19. She said if she stayed and looked after me, she would only depress me. She said really, she was doing me a favor. She left her apartment and walked down the street with her things, saying that she was going to the airport. I found out years later that she had just moved across town.

The next morning, when I sat on the coffee table and asked Jimmy where he was going to go, he begged me to let him stay. I told him I didn't want to get in trouble with the law. And besides, we were broke.

"You guys could be my foster parents," he pleaded. Jimmy said that once a kid in foster care is 16, he can be eligible for independent living. As long as you got any adult to come and say they wanted you to live with them, it would be OK. He said he was very envious of his friend, Juan, who had talked a women who worked at his school's cafeteria into being his foster mom.

We had to go clear across town to visit Jimmy's social worker. It was a bleak kind of neighborhood. There seemed to be train tracks everywhere and laundry lines with no clothes on them.

There were two identical buildings next to each other at the end of a street. One of the buildings had all its windows broken. The other one was the Office for Child Welfare.

Before we walked into the building, I opened my mouth, and Ben squirted some breath spray in. The social worker stared at us. "Why do you want to be Jimmy's foster parents?" she asked. "I like to read books," I said. It was all I could think of to say. I'd always imagined that kids who were read to must be much smarter than me.

I was just quiet after that, but she didn't seem to care how we were planning to raise Jimmy. In fact, the only thing she wanted from us was proof that we were 18. Nothing else seemed to matter. Taking the long subway ride out there seemed to show enough initiative on our parts.

She gave us an address of a school that would accept Jimmy, and then she gave us a roll of green children's bus tickets so that he could get there each day. Then she gave us some forms to fill out, which she apologized profusely for. She explained it was a drag, but it had to be done for accounting, so that we could get money. "If you have any problems, don't call me. Call the front desk first," she said, waving goodbye.

We were given a $100 check to buy him things that he needed. It seemed like a lot of money to me. I took him out shopping for school supplies. We got a large purse with a rainbow on it that he could use to keep his school books in. I also bought him an umbrella and a pair of snow pants.

Then Jimmy and I saw this dress shirt with pink birds on it that looked like it would fit either of us perfectly. We both grabbed for it. I shoved him right into a plastic container of shoes. "Child abuse," he screamed. On the subway back home, he wouldn't stop bugging me, so I bit him on the ear. My dad used to always do that to me with his broken tooth. Pretty soon after Jimmy moved in, things started to go missing around the apartment. If we left a handful of change on the bathroom sink, it would disappear. So would Ben's cigarettes. The radio on the kitchen table was suddenly not there one day, but Jimmy denied that he had taken anything. In my heart, of course, I couldn't really believe him. But it wasn't like he was taking anything I couldn't live without.

Jimmy had to go to a remedial high school. It wasn't long before I was being called in to talk to his teacher. She said that he kept taking his shirt off in class. She said he had 100 spelling mistakes and never did his homework. And she said that Jimmy had been missing tons of school.

"Why haven't you been going to school?" I asked him. "What have you been doing with your days?" "I don't know," he said.

More things vanished from the apartment, records, books, cutlery. One afternoon, while sitting outside on the stoop, I noticed that the next door neighbor was wearing Ben's hat. I asked him where he got it. And the neighbor said, "That blond kid who lives with you sold it to me."

Then while cleaning, I found under Jimmy's blanket a sweat sock, stuffed full, like a Christmas stocking. There was my gold chain with a pink rose. He stole a tiny porcelain southern belle that an ex-boyfriend had given to me. There was even a magnet from the fridge in the shape of a cough syrup bottle with a 1-800 number on it. When I brought it up, Jimmy said they were just souvenirs.

I genuinely liked Jimmy, but I was slowly realizing that nobody else did. When we had friends over, he would moonwalk from one person to the next offering to massage their faces. He'd sit right next to them and ask, "If you could be any animal, what would it be? I'd be an otter because it's original and I like waterslides."

Also, he'd ask for everything. "Oh, that's a beautiful watch," he'd say. "Can I have it? Can I have your necklace? Please, I'll wear it every day."

"Why do you let that little mooch live here?" people would ask. "He's so annoying. He's so squirrelly." I defended Jimmy, saying that he was just going through a phase. He was only a kid. It wasn't his fault that he wasn't mature. I thought he was really showing signs of an artistic temperament.

After all, Rimbaud was a runaway too. If we had found Rimbaud at the Electric Bumbum, I'm sure everyone would also think he was a pretentious teenager, what with his ranting and his poetry. Rimbaud might also knock over the lamp practicing his disco moves and wear glasses with the lenses popped out in an attempt to express himself.

We had had him six months, and still no money had come. Ben asked Jimmy to stop at the social worker and find out where the checks were. Jimmy said that he'd just been there, and that there was a paperwork problem, and we'd be getting the money soon.

Jimmy, our growing boy, was starting to develop a little potbelly from eating all the food in the house, while at the same time, Ben and I were starting to lose weight. Ben complained all the time about how there was never any food in the fridge. Jimmy would eat up every last thing. One time, we came home, and Jimmy was sitting on the couch, watching TV, with a big pot of spaghetti sauce on his lap. Ben started putting him on a scale to make sure he wasn't gaining weight.

At this point, Jimmy wasn't going to school at all. Ben started complaining that he needed to have some sort of activity, other than "eating all our food and following me around all day." "You should try to do something that involves ambition," Ben told him. "Don't you even have a hobby?"

He decided Jimmy had to get out of the house on his own for at least an hour on the weekends. Jimmy would just stand on the balcony, shivering. He'd get down on his knees and call for me through the mail slot. I told Ben that he was pushing Jimmy too hard. When the hour was up, I would rush to unlock the door and let Jimmy back in.

Then one day, Ben had had enough. Jimmy walked in the kitchen wearing Ben's shoes, except they were painted white and had little blue stars on them. "How do you like my dancing shoes?" he asked. "Those are my shoes!" Ben screamed. "No, you never had a pair of white shoes with blue stars on them," said Jimmy. "I would have noticed."

Ben told Jimmy he had gone too far. "I'm calling your social worker in the morning. I don't know how to deal with a kleptomaniac teenager."

The thought of kicking Jimmy out made me feel rotten inside. It made me feel like a degenerate or a criminal. I couldn't stand the thought of him having no place to go. I don't know if that means I'm a sucker or that I just don't care if I'm a sucker.

The next morning, Jimmy was gone anyway, along with a houseload of souvenirs. He didn't even say goodbye. I thought that I had been such a good mother too. I couldn't believe he'd want to run away.

When Ben woke up, he found that the envelope with his $150 that he had spent 40 hours working for was gone. The rent was due, and we were flat broke. Ben called the social worker to ask about the checks. She said that they had all been given to Jimmy. Jimmy had just been cashing them and spending the money himself.

Ben felt like Jimmy had totally taken us for fools. I felt like, well, what do you expect? Now, years later, I have a seven-year-old daughter, and I've come to realize that to be a parent is to be a sucker. You get suckered into being an unappreciated servant who works for free. You get suckered into giving up your privacy. You're suckered into giving up movies and holidays to pay for ballet lessons, and plastic alien babies, and enough bubble gum to stretch to the moon.

And kids will treat you like a sucker. They'll lie right to your face. My daughter tries to convince me before leaving to school in the morning that she doesn't have lip gloss on even though her lips are glistening like candy apples.

And what makes being a parent the ultimate sucker is that not only are you being taken for a sucker, but you actually like it. I lie and connive and manipulate on her behalf all the time, and I do it with pleasure. The other day, I sewed a little pocket inside her jacket so that she could sneak her cards to school after they were banned. "Watch out for the lunch monitors," I tell her. "They're on a power trip." I write her notes saying, "Please let my daughter go to the bathroom whenever she wants. She has serious stomach problems."

And I only wish I could do more. I wish I could sit beside her during her math tests and whisper her the answers. I wish I could cup her ears with my palms when the teacher starts yelling at her for not listening. I wish I could stand with her in the schoolyard at lunchtime and give her the sandwich I packed for work because she decided to feed hers to the birds.

Ira Glass

Heather O'Neill is a poet and novelist.

Credits.

Ira Glass

This is the last program that we have the pleasure of working with producer-in-training Chris Neary. He has had many ideas on how to structure and rework stories that have made our show better, and we are the worse for him going. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who's got an answer for anything we say about him here.

Shane Dubow

Oo-oo-oo-ooh. Oh, scary. Oo-oo-oo-ooh.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

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