Transcript

224:

Middlemen
Transcript

Originally aired 10.25.2002

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/224

Prologue.

Ira Glass

We'll call this guy Chris. He had a job as a middleman, but a kind of odd sort of middleman.

Chris

We basically are the middleman between the deaf and someone who can hear.

Ira Glass

Chris worked for a company that helped deaf people communicate over the telephone. To make a call, a deaf person would contact Chris. He would get the hearing person on the line. The deaf person would type what it is that they wanted to say. Chris would read this to the hearing person, and then type their responses back to the deaf person. Most of the conversations were what you'd expect: people calling their families, talking about what they had for dinner, calling their banks.

Chris

And then again, because I usually worked nights, some of the calls were very intimate phone conversations between people breaking up, people just falling in love for the first time, people telling them that members of their family had died, phone sex, things no one would ever want you to hear, really.

Ira Glass

One thing that happened more often than you'd think, especially when parents were talking to their kids, is that they would get into an argument, and then one of them would try to drag Chris into the argument on their side of it.

Chris

And I wasn't allowed to say anything, so I would just say, the CA, we're co-communication assistants, does not have that information. That was the blanket phrase that they let me use.

Ira Glass

That's so computer-like.

Chris

Well, that was the paradigm they wanted us to follow. They wanted us to be computers, basically, information machines. I remember a daughter had been, it was a deaf daughter, and she had been out sleeping around and doing a lot of drugs, evidently. And the mother was just trying to tell her that she needed to stop doing all these things and saying, "You may feel like you're young, and you can just do what you want, and since you're deaf, you feel you have an excuse to do all these things."

And she started talking to me, and she said, "You don't do drugs, do you?" And I said, the CA does not have that information. And then she said, "Well, can't you just type to her and tell her that you think she's hurting herself as well?"

Ira Glass

Now when she's saying this to you, do you have to type that in, so the daughter knows that she's saying it to you?

Chris

Yeah, you do. You have to type everything that she's saying. The daughter really disliked that. The daughter would start talking to me and say, "Don't let her talk to you." And she would start trying to tell me just how terrible the mother had been to her growing up. The mother actually said at this point, "This is really embarrassing," and tried to pretend like I wasn't there the rest of the time.

Ira Glass

It's hard to be the middleman. Pizza delivery places always hung up on Chris and the other operators. Phone sex operators and drug dealers were way more service-oriented when it came to the deaf. And then there were the people who liked to mess with the middleman, like two African-American guys one day, who started using all sorts of words and phrases just because it would be funny to hear the white operator say them.

Chris

They were talking in really heavy street slang. One person was intent on having me use the n-word, over and over. And it was very uncomfortable. But the two people using it on the phone obviously didn't care. They just wanted to have me do it.

And they were even joking about me doing it. They would just be laughing. A lot of people find a lot of amusement out of playing with a Communication Assistant. I found it kind of funny after a while.

All of my friends who went through the training for this were young black women. And they thought I was kind of really straight. And they used to perk their ears up immediately as soon as they heard me get into any sort of ghetto speak, or whatnot.

Because I can't do it. I didn't like it. But I wasn't going to read in a completely white bread tone of voice, either. I didn't want to do that. It was humiliating and funny at the same time.

Ira Glass

Give another example of times it was hard just to be an information machine.

Chris

A man actually had just fallen off a ladder in his garage. And he had gone deaf. And so he was calling up all his friends and telling them what had happened to him. And so these people were completely unfamiliar with the service.

So I had to explain the service. They still didn't understand it. And then he had to tell them, explain what the service was, why he was using it, and how he had just gone deaf.

And it was very obvious, I remember one man he had called, they were not that close. And the man obviously did not know how to react. He was having a really hard time. He just kept saying I'm sorry, over and over. And it was really excessive. And it was just really hard to keep telling all of it, knowing that you're going to have to tell six or seven people after this that this man has gone deaf.

Ira Glass

And at the end of that, so now you as a person, you've been through this experience with him of now, the two of you have told a half dozen people that he's gone deaf. It must be hard that after you get off the phone with the last person, that you and he don't talk about what just happened.

Chris

Right. Sometimes people will say, because there is a 30-second window of time where I'm still on the line with him. I remember he typed, "Thank you so much. I'm sure that must have been very hard for you as well as me." So there is a brief moment of time.

Ira Glass

It's hard to be the middleman. It's hard to keep your feelings out of it. It hard to stay neutral. People want you to get involved, and they want you to get out of it. You can't win for losing. And I say this as a middle child.

And there there's that whole "eliminate the middleman" thing, eliminate the middleman. If you Google the phrase "eliminate the middleman," you get 3,800 websites promising to eliminate middlemen of every kind for you, car dealers, realtors, stockbrokers, furniture stores, stamp sales, plus one site that has figured out a way to bypass the lousy crop of presidential candidates we're offered every four years. Eliminate the middleman, it promises. Satan for President in 2004.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Today on our program, middlemen. We will not eliminate him. We will not pass the savings on to you. No, no, no, for once, a defense of the beleaguered middleman in three acts, including a simple explanation of how you, yes, you, could have gotten rich off Michael Jordan, using the simple rules of market economics and a good down parka. Stay with us.

Act One. Show Me The Monet.

Man

Triple-A tickets, all events, seven days, concerts, sports, theater, Lincoln Park. And then it's got the address and the phone number. For a lot of years, I worked here. And if someone had called this ad, called in the phone number here, I probably would have been the one to answer the phone.

When people call this number, I don't know what kind of place they're imagining, maybe a fancy little office downtown. But we were actually in the back of a video store, in this little dark office, the ceiling fan going real slowly counter-clockwise, kind of squeaking, one beam of light coming through the tall window up top, and dust streaming around the room, and a dog's barking out back. I remember, for a while, there was not many movies on the shelves. There was Buster, that movie that Phil Collins made.

[LAUGHTER]

And no one would ever rent those movies.

Alex Blumberg

How long did you work there?

Man

On and off from '96 to about 2001. Over the course of those few years, I got to know the ticket world inside and out. I met people with names like 35th Street Eddie, South Side Frank, Fast Willie, Richie the Head. There was a guy named Elbow, who had sort of a big elbow.

A lot of guys got nicknames after whatever event that they specialized in, Monet Joe. One time, there was a Monet exhibit at the art institute. So people come in from out of town, and they want to go to the exhibit. The only way they can go is if they have these VIP staff passes.

And Monet somehow managed to have a few hundred of them. All the ticket brokers, all the ticket guys, all the hotel concierges, everyone was calling Monet. And from then on, he's just been called Monet.

Alex Blumberg

So you came back to town and started to look up some of the people that you used to work with, right? And so who did you talk to first?

Man

First, I looked up an old ticket friend named Liz. And we started talking about some of our old clients.

Liz

You spends so much time on the phone talking to the worst people. They're either mean, or they're rude. Ugh. And you're always putting people on hold, like, "Let me get my supervisor. Let me talk to my supervisor." And you're like, ptth. I'm not doing [BLEEP] for this guy. He stayed on hold. He'll hang up. He'll hang up.

Man

We call it the stew pot. When you left someone just on hold, you say let them stew for a little while. And usually, if they're kind of hemming and hawing, going back and forth, you let them stew for a few, like five minutes. Maybe come on once and be like, "Hang in there, man. Hang in there. I'll be right back with you." Let them stew another five minutes. Then, after 10, they're ready to talk. They're ready to deal.

Liz

Yeah, definitely. We had the lead transfer him to this line that would ring and ring and ring. You're like, "Don't pick up line four. Everybody knows line four is [BLEEP] line. Don't pick it up."

Man

That's so funny, because we always had the same thing. We had different lines that meant different things. You had a couple lines you had to answer different things. Like one line, you had to answer, hello. Like any time we try to get act tickets through legitimate means, like group sales or anything like that. You would put the home phone number. So it said on all the phones, hello. There was a little taped-up piece of paper that said "hello" on it to remind you to answer it "hello?"

This was a phone line that was supposed to simulate an actual home, someone's residence. You were just supposed to pick it up and say, "Hello?" This was when we ordered group sale tickets from the Cubs. So we put in orders for tons of group sales. And if they knew we were a ticket broker, they wouldn't be having it. We wouldn't get the tickets. So we'd pick different names of organizations.

Alex Blumberg

They actually would check, though?

Man

No, they would just call you. And they would be like, what's the name of your organization? And sometimes you would say, "Oh, well, it's Grandpa Louie's 70th birthday. So we're bringing 40 people to that game." Or, "The Little League hockey team that I coach, we're having a special slumber party. And we need 120 tickets. We got tykes coming from all over, up and down the state. They're all-stars. You should see some of these kids. They're really fine hockey players."

There was another phone line that if it rang, you were just supposed to pick the phone line up and not say anything at all, just pick it up and put it to your ear and be silent. That was Guy Lobster, who owned the business. That was one of his special lines. And it was important that just didn't say anything. You weren't supposed to let them hear your voice, even. So just pick it up and be silent. Actually, I never figured out what that one was for.

There's a guy named Leo, who was one of my best friends of all the ticket guys. And a couple days ago, I was in Ann Arbor, at a Michigan football game, and Leo was out there, buying and selling. I saw a couple of the old guys I knew, so they'd come in from all over. And Leo was out there. So I put this mic on his collar, attached the battery pack to his butt, and just listened to him walk around.

Leo

Anybody got one extra ticket? Anybody got one extra?

Alex Blumberg

What is this called, actually, what he's doing now? Is there a term for what he's doing?

Man

Yeah, he's walking the walk. The area by the stadium or by the concert hall is called the walk. And then you're walking the walk. You're saying, "Who needs two?"

Alex Blumberg

So he's just showed up here without any tickets.

Man

Right. He's trying to buy some tickets, so then he can turn them around, and, we say "flip 'em," so he can flip them for some dough, flip them for a profit.

Leo

You got one extra? How much do you want for it? 20?

Man

We're at row 60.

Leo

Row 60? How about 15?

Man

How about 20?

Leo

20?

Man

Yeah.

Leo

18?

Man

$49 ticket.

Leo

OK. Sure you can't do 15?

Man

I'll do 18, but that's it.

Leo

There you go.

Man

Got it. Thanks.

Leo

Thanks.

Alex Blumberg

OK, so I actually timed this. From the moment he says "Thank you, man," to the moment he runs into another person is exactly 1 minute and 20 seconds.

Leo

You guys need tickets? I got one. I'd sell it for 100.

Man

You'd sell it for 100? Yeah, midfield.

We ain't got that--

Alex Blumberg

Wait a minute. He just tried to sell it for $100?

Man

You get what you can, you know? You might as well start high. You never know. Maybe the guy's going to pull out $100 and say, here. It can't hurt to start at $100 and come down.

You can't go up. You can't say $30, and if the guy says, "Only 30?" Be, "Oh, no, no, no. 50." Start as high-- you can always come down.

Chris

Did you have other techniques that you used when you were doing this?

Man

There's a whole psychology to what to do to sell someone tickets. Like when I was on the street, outside of the United Center, say, at a Bulls game, I'd present myself differently to different people, depending on what I thought they wanted out of this ticket-buying transaction. Some guys would be kind of nervous. And I'd see him walking up, and all the hustlers going up to him, trying to sell him tickets. And they'd look all wary. And they'd have a couple kids with them.

So then I'd go up to them, and I'd just be like, "Sir, my uncle couldn't come to the game tonight. But I do have this extra ticket, if you guys want to come. They're great seats. I sit in them every game with my uncle." And I made him feel comfortable buying tickets from me.

And sometimes, there were the guys who, they'd come with a few friends. And they wanted to show off that they could work with our underworld element, that they knew how to deal with scalpers. They'd be like, "I'll take care of it." They'd say to their friends, you'd see them, "I'll be right back." And they'd come up to me.

And then I'd be the hardened street hustler. And I'd be looking around constantly. I'd be saying, "Come on, man. The heat's tight out here tonight. Work with me. Work with me. What are you payin'? What are you payin'? What do you need?" Just trying to make them feel like they were really wheeling and dealing.

Alex Blumberg

Did you always win? Did the customer ever have a chance?

Man

Really, out of every transaction, both people win. If they paid you it, then they could afford it. So many people would buy tickets from me at just what I imagine to be an exorbitant-- I myself was like, this price is ridiculous. And yet, they would be so happy. They would be glowing. And they were so appreciative and thankful to me, for getting them into the game.

But I did make it a rule, sometimes a point of pride, to not let them go in with any, you know, to see how much money they had in their wallet. And I was going to take all of it. They didn't need popcorn in the game. They didn't need a beer.

Being a ticket broker is different than being in other businesses, where if you run a bar, and you run out of Bud Lite, you call up and have them pull that truck right up out back in the loading dock and wheel about 20 cases off. But when you want to get tickets, it's not that simple. There's no easy way to do it. So ticket brokers have to rely on just a whole network of shadowy associates to bring the tickets into them.

There's a guy named Moose who has a whole bike gang. And every year, when Cubs games would go on sale, at the Cubs on sale, you're only allowed to buy eight tickets for up to eight games, so 64 tickets total. He would get about 15 of his biker friends. He would just keep them up all night on Friday night drinking, merrymaking, singing, whatever it would take.

So when the tickets went on sale, he'd then have 15 guys who were waiting there. And hopefully the weren't passed out. They were waiting there to buy 64 tickets each. When he brings them in to the ticket broker, the broker will pay him $10 over the face value for each ticket.

At the Bulls on sales, they started doing this lottery system. They didn't want people to just be camping out two weeks beforehand, because they knew that these tickets were going to be worth so much. So a couple enterprising ticket brokers started rounding up the homeless guys around Chicago.

The actually would rent a school bus, and they would drive around Chicago, just pulling people into the bus, promising them $10 or $20 if they'd come hang out for the morning. Sometimes they'd even pull up in front of the homeless shelter right down there on South Wabash or South State and just toot the horn. And all the guys would come filing out and fill up the bus.

They'd drive them down to the United Center box office window. When the tickets went on sale, you'd have, out of the first 60 people in line, there'd be 50 homeless guys waiting to buy these $100 tickets. And the brokers would just give them a few hundred bucks each to buy the tickets they wanted.

Every once in a while, tickets would be released into the system. Suddenly they would become available. A game that had been sold out, suddenly there are six tickets that are available. And maybe it's a season ticket holder who has canceled, and said, "I can't come to this game."

Or David Stern, the NBA commissioner, he actually has four front row seats to every game in the NBA, every night. And there's no way that he can go to every game every night. In fact, a lot of nights he doesn't go to any game.

So sometime the day of the game, they'll release those seats. And those four beautiful seats will suddenly become available into the system. So whoever's the first person to phone in, go to a window, or punch in online at that precise second is going to be the one that gets them.

So Monet, Monet Joe, what he would do is all night, he would just hang out at his computer, keep pecking, pecking, pecking away, with the Grateful Dead playing and smoking a J and just pecking away, pecking away. Usually it says, "Sorry, your selection is not available." He would peck again, one ticket. He might peck 1,000 times. But then all of a sudden, your screen lights up and gives you that section and row number and says, "Would you like to finish this purchase?" And you know you just made-- you can buy that ticket for face value, which is about as low as you can buy a ticket, and sell it for 10 times that, sometimes.

Alex Blumberg

During the time that you worked, during those five years that you worked as a scalper, how was the money?

Man

It was pretty phat. It was sick. It was humongous. I had a suitcase of money.

Alex Blumberg

You had a literal suitcase of money?

Man

Yeah. It was actually so much money that I didn't want to deposit it at one time in a bank. I didn't want to freak out the bank manager or anything like that. So I would put a little bit in one bank, a little bit in another bank. And then there was a third bank where I had a safety deposit box. And I would just stuff the cash into the safety deposit box.

The Bulls days, Michael Jordan, were really the golden age of tickets in Chicago. There's always peaks and valleys. And I'm sure Yankees tickets are pretty nice now. Laker tickets are alright. But it was a rare, it wasn't just one sports team having a nice run. It really became something that-- it became the focus of the entire world.

You'd meet people from Sweden and Japan and Korea and England and Germany, and you were like a celebrity to them. You had what everybody else in the world wanted. You had a stack of tickets to the Chicago Bulls game. And people would do anything for them, and they would pay any price.

We felt like we were part of something bigger than us. We felt like we were part of this historical moment. The day Michael Jordan retired in 1998, in June, that's the same day I retired.

Michael Jordan probably sits around with his cousins and friends and talked about his great shots that he made, his game-winning dunks. Some of the ticket people sit around and talk about the great sales that they made for Bulls games. Like, I talked to my friend, John, and he's got a story about it.

John

An old lady was walking down the street. She passed all the hustlers up. And nobody had thought to ask her. But I was walking down the street, and I just said, "Do anybody have any extra tickets?"

She said, "Do you need tickets?" I said, "Yeah." And she said, "Yeah, I got a couple of extra tickets, section 111, row 15."

These was the best tickets. These was in center court, 15 rows from the floor. She sold me the tickets at $85 each, which at that time, was face value tickets. I, in turn, didn't even get a chance to walk 10 feet away after I bought the tickets.

A whole gang of people got around me. And everybody was bidding on them. When we got finished bidding with those tickets, those tickets sold at $1,200 cash a ticket.

I was so happy. And the guy that bought them was a Chinese man. Him and his wife went. They thought I was God, because they had the best seats. And I stuffed the money in my pocket and skipped on down the street.

But that was the most memorable thing. This is what a hustler dream of, of a deal like that, because you hardly ever find a deal like that. You can hardly ever find tickets on a Jordan day. Even if you do a ticket like that, you're going to pay a few hundred dollars for it, and then you're going to run around and try to sell it for big money.

But to get a deal like that, it just stays with you. There's nothing to say about a deal like that. Bought cheap, sold high, what more can I say?

Yeah, well, it's just not like it used to be during the Jordan era. What can I say? It's terrible. It is. It's bad.

Man

How bad is it?

John

Here, I'll show you. One day, I was at the White Sox, trying to sell tickets, right? And I had this guy that was going to buy a couple tickets from me. And wasn't charging a lot. And it was a $27 ticket. I was going to give it to him for $20 apiece. And a fan walked up and just gave him two tickets. That's how bad it was. And the guy said, "Thanks for talking to me," and went to the ballpark.

Man

It's a cold, dark, rainy, miserable, February day every day. And it's [INAUDIBLE] now. Where instead of the gleaming bright sun of the Bulls era. It used to be this page had about 30, 40 ads every day in here. Now there's, what, one, two, three, four, five, six. So a lot of people are out of the game that once were in it. It wasn't just me that retired.

Ira Glass

Our ticket scalper talked with This American Life producer Alex Blumberg.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "TWO TICKETS TO PARADISE" BY EDDIE MONEY]

Coming up, 60,000 Memphis fans can't be wrong about you, can they? In a minute from Public Radio International and Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two. Stuck Inside Of Memphis.

Sal Princiatta

When we arrived into Memphis, as soon as they find out who you are, you're a rock star.

Man

And now for what you have all been waiting for. We're here to meet the heroes from New York City. These guys are from Engine House 33, Ladder Company 9, which I think is about a mile from the World Trade Center. These were some first guys on the scene, and they lost 10 men out of their 40-man crew. So these are the real heroes of New York City.

Sal Princiatta

We represent good, you know.

Man

Sal, I'd like for Sal "Elvis" Princiatta to come up.

Sal Princiatta

Everybody wishes they could have been there, I think, in one way, for one hour, for one minute. So we connect them to that one minute. It's unnerving. And a lot of the guys feel the same way.

It's very unnerving to be applauded. I just can't take it. I appreciate it, but it's unnerving. It's embarrassing.

We represent, we are FDNY, and that's what they see. They don't see names, not me, not Pete, not Joe, not anybody. They see what we do.

We see, and we know, that we pretty much didn't do anything. I think they feel sorry for us, because we lost the battle, maybe almost pity us. They do pity us. That's pity out there. That's pity treatment.

Boy

Are y'all friends of those people that died in the World Trade Center?

Firefighter

Mm-hmm.

Woman

I welcome you to Sun Studios, the birthplace of rock and roll. And if you have any questions, hold them until the end of the tour. And if you have any pagers or cell phones, then turn those off now, because we are entering the year 1950.

Sal Princiatta

Sun Records was great. The birth of rock and roll, that was a good place to be. That's one part that sticks out in my head a lot.

Man

Everybody that comes off the tour, I'm going to give y'all one of our short-sleeve t-shirts over here.

Woman

No way, they're getting a short-sleeve t-shirt?

Man

Black, white, burgundy, the blue, also in black, and all different style t-shirts. Perfect. Just pick your size, my friend.

Sal Princiatta

So to take gifts from people, how do I feel? People want to pacify, and want to do what they can.

Woman

And so, I present a pair of gold and clausinate cuff links with the city seal.

Sal Princiatta

But it's hard to conceive. You're getting gifts while your friends are dead. That's all. How does that equate? What's the purpose?

Man

These are real heroes. These guys are from New York, World Trade Center.

Firefighter

What's up guys, how are you?

Sal Princiatta

I've seen a cartoon in the newspaper of Spider-man, Batman, and Superman asking for a firefighter's autograph. And that's just too much to be put on any average joe's back. Because that's really what we are.

Man

And these great guys are here for three days. Let's give them a standing Memphis ovation.

Sal Princiatta

The symphony was pretty cool. I don't really like speaking in public. We were there for the closing ceremonies of Memphis in May. Or was it May in Memphis? I can't remember.

A lot of people get emotional. Maybe they see the pain in our eyes, and for anybody who was ever a soldier, you could tell. They see the look in the eyes. So they feel for us.

And also, it's their own grief, I would think, that they're letting out. They can't say enough. So they repeat themselves, which is fine.

Man

I'd like to just shake your hand, bud. Y'all did a hell of a job. And I would

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

That's all I can say, is I'm proud. We're really proud of you.

Firefighter

You guys have put us up and made us feel right at home here, very nice of you.

Man

We're just proud of you, is all I can say. That's all I can say.

Firefighter

Thank you, sir.

Man

That's all I can tell you is, we're proud of you guys. Y'all did a hell of a job, and we're proud of you, that's all I can say. We're really proud of you. Y'all did a hell of a job, and that's all I can say, bud.

Sal Princiatta

We're his connection. We're his connection to what went down. And that's it. We connect him to what went down. And we give him a vehicle to feel it.

Man

Whereas for you--

Sal Princiatta

Exactly. As for us, we're too connected? No [BLEEP]. Very much too connected.

There was one day we played a softball game against Memphis Fire Department.

Woman

Way to go, Sal. Way to come home.

Sal Princiatta

[BLEEP].

Man

All right, whose--

Sal Princiatta

Mine.

Man

You all right?

Sal Princiatta

Yeah.

Man

Want me to go get the bottle?

Man

He's now a paramedic?

Sal Princiatta

Something.

[SOUND OF INHALER]

[COUGHING]

I was having a hard time. I dug there a lot of days. That's why my health is so bad. But I was having a real hard time, until I got warmed up.

If we had our team, if we had our A-team, we would have definitely beat them. Like we have Mike and Dave, who were killed in 9/11. They were great outfielders. If they were there, it's a different game. If Gerarde Baptiste, that's three outfielders. If we had those guys there, we would have picked them apart.

We lost a lot of guys from the team. And in fact, a recent guy, Gary Guidell, who just took his own life, was on the team. And he was a good guy, Gary.

So I think that's another reason why guys are feeling a little bit vulnerable at this point. Because Gary was a regular joe. He didn't show any signs of hurting any more than any one of us. So that stirred up a lot of fright in a lot of-- in myself. I can speak for myself, but I'm sure I can speak for others, that what happened to Gary is everybody's biggest fear right now, to take your own life.

Woman

Thank you so much for allowing us to be photographed. You make us very proud.

Firefighter

Thank you.

Man

Guys, let's go-- you guys have signed the paper, right?

Firefighter

You got it.

Ira Glass

Sal Princiatta. His story was produced with Beth Landau, David van Taylor, and Allie Pomeroy at Lumiere Productions in New York.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "LONELY MAN" BY ELVIS PRESLEY]

Act Three. What It Takes To Tromp Through The Desert.

Wendy Dorr

Mayor Jurczynski is the sort of politician who's great at talking with old ladies or small businessmen, or really with anybody, for about a minute and a half. But after that, after his opening lines, he goes into this patter. If you hang around him for more than a few hours, you hear the same lines over and over. There are awkward jokes. But he's making such an effort that you kind of forgive him anything. Here he is, showing a busload of Guyanese New Yorkers around Schenectady.

Al Jurczynski

But you know, there's people, Guyanese people, that have come here. And they said, "I've been to Schenectady. It's a little too slow for me. I like the fast pace of New York City." So that's understandable. And I like to tell people that come up here on the bus that if you like traffic jams, you should stay in New York City.

That was a joke. You know, my jokes are getting pretty old.

[LAUGHTER]

I know one thing. Whenever I run out of things to say when I'm talking to Guyanese people, all I got to do is mention cricket. And then everybody starts talking.

Wendy Dorr

He looks around the bus. Nobody starts talking.

In 1995, when he first ran for mayor, Schenectady was going through the same kinds of pains as lots of Rust Belt cities. The biggest employer, General Electric, had downsized from 40,000 employees to just a few thousand. Tens of thousands of people had moved away, or were forced to retire.

For a while, Al Jurczynski had this idea to lure Hasidic Jews to Schenectady. He wanted to repopulate certain problem neighborhoods with a group that was self-reliant, family-oriented, and tightly knit. That idea went nowhere. But then last year, some Guyanese people came to him for help getting an abandoned church for religious services.

Al Jurczynski

Well, we talked. And I talked about public assistance. And we had had quite a problem with a lot of people coming up from New York City that were not coming up here to work, but were getting on public assistance. A lot of them were doing things that we didn't want them to do, namely get involved in the drug trade.

And they made it very clear, right up front, within probably the first 5 or 10 minutes that I met with them, that they don't believe in public assistance unless it's absolutely necessary. But it's against their culture to get on public assistance. And I heard that. I was extremely impressed by that. It was just so wonderful and so refreshing. And at that point, that's when I really I started to really embrace them.

Herman Singh

Thanks, folks, you're in tune to Herman Singh Showtime. It's 93.5 FM on your dial. It's now 20 minutes before 11:00 AM.

Wendy Dorr

And that's where Herman Singh comes in. He's a realtor slash mortgage broker slash weekly radio host down in New York City, in the Queens neighborhood where most Guyanese live. It was his bright idea to bus Guyanese up to Schenectady every Saturday, to encourage them to buy houses up there. He pays for the buses himself, and promotes the trip like crazy on his weekly real estate slash music program, Herman Singh Showtime.

Herman Singh

If you're planning to purchase a property in Schenectady, our next trip is actually going up to Schenectady on Saturday. And room with friends, if you are selling your property--

Wendy Dorr

At the beginning of the mayor's initiative to bring Guyanese to Schenectady five months ago, the mayor went on Herman's radio show and gave out his personal cell phone number on the air, a political gesture he explains this way.

Al Jurczynski

I have free incoming calls. So if I was paying for the incoming calls, I wouldn't have done it. And I'd do it again.

Wendy Dorr

He gives me a sheepish look, and then blurts--

Al Jurczynski

857-4000, area code 518. If you want to buy a home in Schenectady, give me a call.

Wendy Dorr

One Saturday in December, I schlep out to Queens at 6:30 in the morning to take the bus tour myself. And while two dozen of us wait for the bus to arrive, I meet Ali Latif. He's 60 years old, and he's been living in the Bronx with his wife for the last 14 years. His black hair is perfectly parted on one side. And he's wearing a clean Oxford shirt buttoned to the collar.

He tells me that he works as a doorman in Manhattan. And since he had to miss a day of work to come on the trip, and because he missed the bus by five minutes the week before, the trip is actually costing him $260. To be sure he doesn't miss the bus again, he's been waiting here since 5:30 this morning.

And when he starts talking about why he's thinking of moving to Schenectady, he repeats over and over, his voice raised, pointing his long, thin finger at my nose, that he's not on a joy ride. He's a serious businessman, looking for an opportunity.

Ali Latif

So I lose two day's pay just to go check this place out. It means that I'm not joking. $260 are losing, right?

I am going here on business. I am personally going here on business. I am a serious chap. That is what I'm saying. I don't make joke with business.

Wendy Dorr

It's a three-hour bus ride to Schenectady. And when we pull into town, it's not pretty. We pass abandoned gas stations and empty store fronts and ugly, rundown apartment buildings. And then, in the middle of nothing, is City Hall. And City Hall is spectacular, obviously just renovated with gleaming marble, the kind of old government building that's so beautiful, that the thought crosses your mind, "Maybe I should work in government."

And there, lined up in front as our bus pulls up, are a chorus of clean, perky white men in multi-colored golf shirts.

Man

It's a long way, isn't it?

We've got beautiful weather for you here today, if nothing else, huh? Good morning. You have a nice ride up? These are the important guys with the food, right? Come on up.

Wendy Dorr

We are led like little, sleepy sheep into an intimidating-looking room with leather chairs lining the perimeter. Everybody looks a little scared. Ali, the serious businessman who is not on a joy ride, picks a seat close to the front.

Man

Good morning. I want to welcome you. It's my job to talk a little bit about the general economy, the history of Schenectady. Schenectady was founded about 300 years ago as a Dutch trading settlement.

Wendy Dorr

This speech, by the city's Director of Economic Development, pretty much sets the tone for what's to follow all day, mind-numbingly boring facts, which go on and on and on, peppered with the kinds of utterly sincere-sounding appeals that you almost never hear from any government official, anywhere.

Man

--because quite frankly, you're a great opportunity for us. And please know that we want you and need you. And so we hope you find us as much of an opportunity as we find you.

Wendy Dorr

One by one, the men take the stage, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, a state legislator, the president of one of the local hospitals, and the guy who owns the Goodyear Family Tire Center.

Man

So it truly is a very, very exciting time to be a small person in downtown Schenectady.

Wendy Dorr

The Guyanese seem to find all of this captivating. A few of them are taking notes, and everyone is alert and attentive. Ali explains to me later, they're immigrants. No official of the United States government has ever courted them like this.

Ali Latif

They didn't welcome me in that way when I reached America in 1988. They didn't tell me anything about, I welcome you because you're a hard-working man, Guyanese people. But Schenectady actually, Schenectady is crying for help. And the only people who can put Schenectady back on its foot is the Guyanese people.

It's true. It's not false. They're hard-working, and they're going to make it if they're going to put back the city on its foot.

Wendy Dorr

Which brings us to Mayor Al, who orchestrated this whole morning to get them to see it this way. He's the last speaker. And when he comes on, more than anyone else, he treats the Guyanese like they're special. He solicits them in a way that seems more genuine.

Al Jurczynski

Just in a couple minutes, I just want to tell you, Schenectady is a beautiful city. and I'm going to pass some cards out, too. If you want to just take one and pass it around.

Wendy Dorr

He hands around a stack of his own business cards, which people seem a little shocked to be getting. And then, to make them feel welcome, he says in various ways, I am like you. He talks about his own immigrant roots, about how his grandparents came over from Poland, and about how his wife's parents moved to Schenectady from Italy.

Al Jurczynski

And there's a lot of similarities between Italians and Guyanese. They're very family-oriented. They're very ambitious. It's not uncommon for the Italians to work the way the Guyanese work.

I think you're a lot like Polish people, my family, in that you're very reserved. Italians like to argue. I know because my wife is Italian.

Wendy Dorr

The mayor's bus tour of town takes four hours. He shows us good neighborhoods and bad, the sewage treatment plant and the old GE plant. We even stop at his son's Little League picnic in the park for half an hour, because he promised his wife he'd drop by.

Al Jurczynski

Hey, Tom. Hey, Tom.

Wendy Dorr

And he's constantly dragging the citizens of Schenectady onto the bus for testimonials. Tom is a city councilman who happened to be working in his front yard. We also meet Eddie, another city employee, and Jewel, the secretary to the former mayor. And around two hours into the tour, we're driving down a long, narrow street, when Mayor Al spots a Guyanese family outside a house. I can see the mayor just about restrain himself from pointing excitedly at them.

Al Jurczynski

Well, just tell everybody what you think of Schenectady.

Man

Very nice place to live.

Wendy Dorr

The last stop on the tour is the one that closes the deal for a lot of people. The mayor takes us to his wife's parents' house. Next to a small white ranch home is a huge vegetable garden, with the most beautiful vegetables I think I have ever seen in my life. It strikes a chord with everyone. The mayor's in-laws, an elderly Sicilian couple, make a point of greeting each people and shaking their hand.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

They offer us all some homemade wine, and we're all goners, including Rohini and Gandhi Gopi, two New York City public school teachers who were skeptical after the morning presentation.

Rohini Gopi

When I see this, it reminds me of my own vegetable garden. And to my mind, this is the best part of the trip.

Wendy Dorr

So now, how are you feeling about Schenectady?

Rohini Gopi

More and more positive.

Gandhi Gopi

We want to get, we want to start making steps, if we could talk to somebody today about certain steps of making a move.

Wendy Dorr

We stand around in the driveway, drinking sweet white wine out of plastic cups. When I check in on Ali, he's unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and feeling a little tipsy, and making plans to buy a house plus an empty lot next door.

It's a month after the bus trip, and I'm back up in Schenectady. There's an old bar called Sark's in Hamilton Hill, which is the neighborhood that the mayor wants all the Guyanese to move to. You could say it's the worst neighborhood in the city, or you could say it's where the best house bargains are, depending on your point of view.

When you drive through it, it seems like a third of the houses are boarded up, a sketchy enough place that people in the bar are kind of surprised that I would be walking in there alone. I talk to a guy named Rod Smith. He's a carpenter, and he grew up here. And though he and his friends don't think much of the mayor, they like this one initiative. Nearly everyone I meet in Schenectady likes it.

Rod Smith

Anything to upgrade this community would be 100%. Schenectady is in the dumper right now. I can't make from my car to my front door, which is 15 feet away, without somebody trying to sell me something. I have people running up and down in front of my windows all night long, selling drugs and other things.

I got a guy standing outside of my front door, trying to sell drugs. And he thinks that I'm pulling over to buy something from him. And I said "I live here. Get away from my front door." Next thing I know, they're going to be coming through it. I don't want that.

Wendy Dorr

All the Guyanese believe it's safer in Schenectady than in New York City. But they're moving to the worst neighborhood in town, and the crime stats aren't encouraging. In the year 2000, Schenectady county had half the violent crimes per capita than Queens county had. But there were so many property crimes that overall, Schenectady had much higher crime rates per capita than Queens.

Not that this makes much difference to the Guyanese I talk to. Whenever I ask them about the difficulties of moving, how dangerous the neighborhood is, the availability of jobs, the fact that Schenectady gets 60 inches of snow a year, so they're not going to actually get that much time in their gardens, they shrug it off. They say what I imagine immigrants to this city have always said. They say they're ready to sacrifice, which is one reason the mayor's pitch seems to work so well.

He doesn't tell them it's going to be easy in Schenectady. He makes it clear it's going to be hard, and they're going to have to work hard. And they all tell me, that's exactly what they're prepared to do.

Ali Latif

This house, look at it. The driveway is very wide. Right? It's very spacious, wide. It's not choked up--

Wendy Dorr

When I catch up with Ali, he shows me a Polaroid of the yellow house he now owns in Schenectady. Two weeks after our bus trip, he took another day off from work, bought a $70 bus ticket, and went up to see some houses. He liked this one immediately. He didn't have the place inspected or do any more research about Schenectady or the neighborhood. And compared to prices in New York City, it was a steal. He paid $55,000, all cash.

Ali Latif

The house is profit, because people--

Wendy Dorr

It's a two-family house, and there are two tenants in the building. The tenants are section eight, which means that the government pays a large portion of the rent. He'll rent it out for two years, and then he'll move to Schenectady to retire. He's put his faith and his life savings into this plan. And it was all because of the mayor, he tells me, the way the mayor treated him.

Ali Latif

I think one, why I'm going to live here, I can approach him. That's a most important factor. I can't go approach Mr. Bush and Rudy Giuliani and the governor.

I can't well meet them. It's hard to reach them. But I can reach, if I live in Schenectady, I could go and reach the mayor. And I am sure they would listen to me.

Al Jurczynski

These are people that are from Guyana originally--

Wendy Dorr

Again, Mayor Al.

Al Jurczynski

--but for the last 10 or 15 years, have been in New York City. And in New York City, they revere the office of mayor. The mayor of New York City is an international figure. So when they come here, oftentimes they'll say, "I've never shaken the hand of a mayor before." And I go along with that. I let them think that I'm bigger than life.

Wendy Dorr

He says this is completely different from the way his regular constituents greet him. It's a hard, blue-collar city, he says. The old residents don't put the mayor up on a pedestal. Only the new residents do that, which is a mixed blessing for him, since he's not the sort of person who feels very comfortable on a pedestal.

Ira Glass

Wendy Dorr. As best as anybody knows, there were about 1,000 Guyanese in Schenectady before the mayor started his initiative in May. And according to mortgage brokers, perhaps 200 families, maybe 1,000 people have moved since then. The mayor's goal is to triple the Guyanese community to 3,000 people by the end of the year. His long-term goal is a little more ambitious, 35,000 people by the end of three years, a huge increase for a city of 60,000. So far it's a small enough change that everybody that Wendy talked to in Schenectady, even in the neighborhood that is most affected, told her they did not notice a change yet.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "MOSES SUPPOSES" BY GENE KELLY AND DONALD O'CONNOR]

Credits.

Man

I did make it a rule to see how much money they had in their wallet. And I was going to take all of it.

Wendy Dorr

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

[MUSIC PLAYING - "MOSES SUPPOSES" BY GENE KELLY AND DONALD O'CONNOR]

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.