Transcript

237:

Regime Change
Transcript

Originally aired 04.18.2003

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life from WBEZ Chicago distributed by Public Radio International. A couple weeks ago, one of the producers of our show, our senior producer Julie Snyder, was out with a bunch of friends. And they ended up in a conversation where they stumbled on this thing that had happened to all of them, though they never realized how universal it was. For all of them, back they were kids, back in the '80s, their parents got divorced and then remarried. And they all agreed the re-marriage was way harder than the divorce.

Julie Snyder

Divorce had come out of nothing. There had been enough literature about the whole thing and enough books about everything that was like here's how to talk to your kids about divorce. I mean, so much so that we all even had the exact-- I mean everyone had the same vocabulary about it. Number one being it's not your fault. And number two being that we love you more than anything. Mommy and daddy still love you, and you're the most important thing.

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah, we know you love us, yeah.

Julie Snyder

I mean, I remember even, I got told so many times that it's not your fault that it just started freaking me out after a while. I started thinking like, it never even occurred to me that this was my fault. And, after being told so much, I started thinking, like, really? Maybe this is my fault.

Ira Glass

And in comparison, when the new husband, the new wife showed up, there hadn't been books about that. People didn't know what to do with that.

Julie Snyder

Apparently there were not books about that, because we were all definitely the Guinea pigs for the re-marriages. And it was sort of like chaos. Everyone sort of had different stories that were just remarkable to tell. I understand that it's a really difficult thing to go through. And all of us have a lot of sympathy for our parents in this situation, and that they were trying to figure it out as they went along. But the mistakes that were made were so egregious in some situations.

Like for example?

Julie Snyder

Like one of the girls said that her dad's secretary, all of a sudden, one morning, she woke up and came into the kitchen and saw her dad's secretary standing there. And then she called her Mrs. Smith, as she always referred to her, and then the woman said to her, no, now you call me mommy. Sure, I guess so. I tend to call random women, standing at the kitchen sink in the morning, mommy. So why not?

Ira Glass

Mommy, the name that carries more meaning than anything for a child. I will grant you that name, congratulations.

Julie Snyder

Yeah, this is not traumatizing for me whatsoever.

Ira Glass

How long after the parents are re-married, how long do people say that it took before the new person seemed like something other than an invading army?

Julie Snyder

I actually think that for a lot of people it took for them going away, moving out of the house.

Ira Glass

So it could be like a decade? It could be, like literally, until they were done growing up?

Julie Snyder

Sure, yeah, probably until they are about 18.

Ira Glass

They never they really accepted their hearts like, this is our new family, this is the new person in our family?

Julie Snyder

I don't think so. I don't think fully. There's a level of where, obviously, you accept reality. But when you're sort of being occupied, it's pretty hard to understand that they want love for you or that they feel love for you. It's a lot about just trying to get used to their relationship with your parent. It's very hard to figure out where you are in the priority list.

Ira Glass

Oh right, of course, because one of the things that they are, is not just your new parent, but they're basically a competitor for your other parent.

Julie Snyder

In the most literal way. For time, and affection, and energy, and for being a priority, and everything, you really are competing.

Ira Glass

It's not the divorce that kills you, it's the re-marriage. Just like it's not the war that's so difficult sometimes, it's the reconstruction after-- trying to build something new, trying to put a new regime in place, even if the old regime wasn't so great. New people are jockeying for power. It's unclear who gets what, who'll get their way on a 1,000 little issues. It's hard even if everybody really wants it to go well.

Ira Glass

Was your step-dad the kind of person who launched like a hearts and minds campaign to win you all over and be super sweet to you, and do stuff with you and all that?

Julie Snyder

Yeah, he did launch a whole campaign. One of the things he did, which we all really enjoyed, was that he got us HBO. And he did away with the whole, you can't see R-movies until you're 16.

Ira Glass

Brilliant.

Julie Snyder

Yeah, and that I have to say, that went over big. And, oh, he cussed in front of us, which we all enjoyed. I really love my step-dad. And there were mistakes made, but they really did a lot to reassure me, and he did a lot to love me and to provide for me. I sort of feel like, maybe I even got the best you could expect. And I still would probably say, it was the most traumatizing experience of growing up.

Ira Glass

And you still didn't accept him until you moved out?

Julie Snyder

Not really, yeah.

Ira Glass

Well today in our program, regime change. Like charity, regime change begins at home. We have three stories of the new people coming in, shaking things up, doing things their way. Forget about doing it in a foreign country with over 20 million people who don't speak your language and share your religion, even in the smallest possible setting, it's daunting.

Our program today in three acts, act one, unconquerable. In that act, the story of that one store, that one place on the corner. You know what I'm talking about. Every neighborhood has one. Where the new owners come and go. New businesses come and go. And none of them can make it work, none of them can make a profit or stay very long.

Act two, or give me death. The story of a political party that wants to take over a state, impose their will on the locals, and what happens when they show up in a state that they're thinking of conquering, Vermont, and meet the natives for the very first time. Act three, the heart is a lonely junta. The story of a man reluctant to accept a very, very local regime change. Stay with us.

Act One. Unconquerable.

Ira Glass

Act one-- unconquerable. There's this storefront in Washington DC, it's got location, location, and location. The neighborhood is gentrifying. Property values are high. There's lots of money everywhere. It's right by a bus stop. It's 10 minutes from the subway in the most densely populated neighborhood of the city, a place called Adams Morgan. By all rights, it should succeed. Yet every business that goes in there fails. Like some colonial country that throws off every conquering nation that tries to take it. Katie Davis has lived a block away from that storefront since she was 10 years old and decided, once and for all, she was going to look into it.

Katie Davis

Everybody in the neighborhood talks about it. What's wrong with 1801 Columbia road? It's weird. The storefront straddles the biggest intersection we've got with huge wraparound windows. But they're always dark. Eight businesses have tried this space in 35 years, eight.

In 1968 there was Eddie Leonard's-- incredible steak and cheese sandwiches. Then--

Man 1

Al bought it from Eddie. Eddie was getting old then.

Katie Davis

And it became Al's Supreme, exact same menu.

Man 2

Very, very greasy.

Katie Davis

Next, the Long John Silver's opened and never did well.

Man 3

Fish was not the appealing food at the time.

Katie Davis

So for a while, it was a Latino disco with pink walls and mirrors And then a place called Cosmos.

Man 4

God knows what it was. It was awful.

Katie Davis

And here it gets a little fuzzy. No one can remember the name of the next place.

Man 5

OK, we had-- it's some kind of grill?

Katie Davis

Then there was a Boston Market, and a kebab place that never took. And finally, a Chinese restaurant tried its luck.

Man 6

I don't think we could ever figure out what exactly the name was. Restaurant Number One or something like that maybe?

Katie Davis

Chinese Restaurant Number One is what the sign said. But they took it down.

George Dravillas

And after again and again that doesn't make it, why?

Katie Davis

I went to see the old-timers about the store, people who've been here forever. Mr George Dravillas holds court in the wood paneled real estate office he opened in 1953, just a half block from the storefront in question. Mr. Dravillas fingers through a withered school notebook pasted with tiny, I mean, minuscule real estate ads that go back decades. He's had his name on at least half the leases and deeds in the neighborhood, but Mr. Dravillas has never handled any transaction at 1801 Columbia Road. He has a simple explanation for why any business there is doomed.

George Dravillas

The corner door is the bad thing. They don't want to go through the corner door. I don't know why. I suggest that to open two stores and close the corner, then we'll have success. But they don't listen.

Katie Davis

Constantine Stavropoulos has a different theory. He owns two successful restaurants in the neighborhood, and he's the head of our business association. When Constantine arrived five years ago, the neighborhood myth was that there was no daytime business. And then he opened his coffee shop, Tryst. People sat on the lumpy sofas and made it a hang-out. Pretty soon, Constantine opened a 24-hour diner just two doors down, same whomping success.

So the guy has instincts along with his MBA. And when Constantine had a chance to open his diner at 1801 Columbia Road, those instincts told him, stay away. 1801 only looks like a good location, he says. Really, it's a mirage. People are at that intersection but never on that corner.

Constantine Stavropoulos

It might be, I don't know, crowd dynamics or something that sort of get people into this thinking that they don't want to hike across the street and go over there. So in a way, it's like this little island. You can see it, but it's a question of just getting to it.

Katie Davis

At this point, it might help if you picture the corner. 18th and Columbia Road has wide roomy streets and bus stops on three sides. There's a bank and a McDonald's that's always busy. To the south, there are 60 businesses crammed into the first and second floors. All of this feeds into the intersection. Just a few steps to the north, though, all retail stops, taken over by somber row-homes, a dead zone merging into dead space. Which brings us to the whole chicken and egg problem of how to explain this corner. Do businesses fail because there's no foot traffic? Or is there no foot traffic because the businesses are crummy?

Sid Drazin

Gee, is it warm enough for you out there?

Katie Davis

Mention the failed storefront to Sid Drazin at Comet Liquor and Deli and be prepared to stick around for a while as he launches into his business-according-to-Sid talk. He paces behind the register, lecturing, ringing up a turkey on rye. He says, remember the guys who leased the storefront back in 1995 and opened a Boston Market franchise? They were sure roasted chicken would draw a crowd.

Sid Drazin

They sat in my place six months before they did it and asked me my opinion. I told him they were crazy if they opened it up. And they continued to tell me there's 15,000 cars go by there every day. There's close to 4,000 or 5,000 people walking around in the neighborhood. They'd have to get 5%, maybe 1%, but they'd do enough. And I looked at them, and I said, have you ever been in business, gentlemen? And they said, no, we're MBA's. And when we have that much traffic going by and so forth, we have to calculate that's enough to make our payroll and everything else. I said, OK, you want to throw your money away, be my guest.

Katie Davis

The Boston Market guys didn't listen to him. Sid's been four doors down from the corner for 22 years, and they didn't listen. They opened and folded after two years and two months. As we talk about this, Sid sighs, over and over. Look, he says, the only way you'll draw people to that store is if you make it a designated corner.

Sid Drazin

Designated means that it's a item that people need and will go to regardless of where it's at. If it's a good cleaner, I don't care where it is. They'll stop go in and get out. If it's a drug store, has good prices, service, and what they need, they'll go to it. If it's a shoe store, a shoe repair, which is none in the area, everybody needs it.

Katie Davis

Let me take one of those. Here's the problem with shoe repair. The rent at 1801 is about $10,000 a month. High for the neighborhood, but not unheard of. Shoe makers charge $25 for a new leather sole. You'd have to have 400 come in every month with an old shoe just to make the rent, not to mention taxes, insurance, and a couple of employees.

Or you'd have to do what Sid does at Comet Liquor and Deli. There's nothing in the store you can't get at other places in the neighborhood. He sells bagels to the yuppies, truffles to old ladies, and pint-sized bottles of vodka to the guys who drink on the corner. And there's a copy machine that's broken most of the time. It's a store held together by sheer force of personality. People come for Sid.

Sid Drazin

The thing of it is, it is a designated spot in the community. I made it such. In other words, if you're there as a person, and you take the community into your bosom or so-called hands, or you are willing to join the community and be part of it? Then it becomes a designated thing.

Katie Davis

The bosom theory makes sense to Mary Godwin, although she differs on what it takes to hold the community close. She says, she used to march into 1801 Columbia Road and tell the owner.

Mary Godwin

Get a bar in here. You don't remember. He didn't even have a bar in there. You can't make it around here without a bar. I really think so. I say, yeah, you got to have a bar around this neighborhood.

Katie Davis

Mary was a neighborhood star back in the 1950's when she was a champion roller skater, and then tended bar down at Millie & Al's. Mary always wanted to own a pub with regulars. She always wanted to put it at 1801, but whenever it came up for lease, she never had the cash. If only though, if only Mary had gotten that lease, her husband Tony would have worked the door. They would have called it Bailey's.

Mary Godwin

I told Tony, I guarantee you, if you and I had go that place some time ago, it would've been the neighborhood bar.

Mary's Husband

At that time, the people we knew, and the people that would follow Mary and come and listen to me with my stories, we would have been successful. But them people are dead or have moved on. It's a different generation. I'm not into the college set. I'm from the coal mines, and Mary's a skater and a waitress.

Katie Davis

There was a time that storefront flourished. It was in the early 1970's when it was Eddie Leonard's, a sandwich shop owned by an ex-boxer.

Reggie

Guys, you had lines out the door, sometimes, at 3:00 in the morning.

Katie Davis

I never saw lines out the door, but I was at home being 12. I know my mom went there after bar-hopping. My friend, Reggie, had a few years on me, and he made 1801 Columbia Road home base, ordering a $0.10 Coke and hanging out for hours on the orange plastic chairs. He says, by 3:00 in the morning, everyone in the place was drunk, high, or trying to get high.

Reggie

Because on 18th Street, you had the Showboat Lounge, and you had Manuel's nightclub. You're always going to get a good show around closing time, because whenever the bars close, people get hungry.

Katie Davis

Back then 1801 was a destination, an open house for the neighborhood. Women clicked through the door in their heels, Afros and beehives jutting up. Men in popcorn shirts and platform shoes, gamblers, bouncers, dancers, they all came in. Reggie says that the night pizza-man at 1801 was a 17 year old everyone called by his childhood nickname, Stinky.

Reggie

Stinky was weird. Stinky was, I guess, what you would call a nerd now-a-days, when we were kids. He was one of those people who wanted to be a gangster but always got caught.

Katie Davis

No one said this to Stinky's face though. He was six foot five, 230 pounds and already hard from 22 juvenile arrests and reform school. People steered clear of Stinky. He carried a gun, and he robbed people, sometimes a half block from that corner where he worked.

Reggie

When they finally caught him, they charged him with 69 crimes. So he was busy in this neighborhood, in this neighborhood alone. And what happened was, apparently he robbed this woman in the Mews, Kalorama Mews, those townhomes. And she wasn't that old, and she knew karate, and she tried to use it on him. And he shot her a couple times in the face, and, I believe, he stabbed her, but she didn't die. Matter of fact, she drew-- she must have been an artist-- she drew the wanted poster.

And they posted them all around the neighborhood. And he wasn't the brightest guy in the world. He had this one particular outfit, a green leather jacket, I think, a brown leather baseball cap that he would wear whenever he'd commit crimes. And everybody in the neighborhood knew it, because they posted what he'd had on. And everybody knew it was him.

Katie Davis

In the end, the building gave Stinky up. He stood right in the windows of 1801 twirling pizzas wearing that baseball cap. Police made the connection, and stinky got 37 years to life. Just a couple years later when the sandwich shop closed, the string of failures started.

Even people who don't know the real story will tell you, a murderer worked there, and that's what went wrong. The local weekly once wrote a story about the corner and headlined it, "The Curse of Stinky." Nearly everyone I spoke with eventually got around to the idea of a curse. Here's Mr. Dravillas when he was trying to explain the problem with the door at 1801 Columbia Road.

Katie Davis

Explain to me, what's the problem with the corner?

George Dravillas

Curse-- the door.

Katie Davis

Or here's Mark Winstead checking a rim up the block at City Bikes.

Mark Winstead

There's some voodoo going on. It's like the Bermuda Triangle of small business.

Katie Davis

And this is Pat Patrick, another big real estate broker.

Pat Patrick

That is just a damning site. It's all there is to it.

Katie Davis

A damning site?

Pat Patrick

Well, yeah, it's jinxed.

Katie Davis

On the other hand, maybe for a neighborhood to be in balance there has to be an accursed storefront, the one corner that everyone rolls their eyes at, the problem child. It brings people together, and it gives us something we can all agree on.

So Starbucks, that's the latest. Starbucks signed a lease at 1801. They're going to load in a bunch of Sumatra beans and Kenyan blend, put cushy chairs in the windows and offer wireless access. How, you might wonder, how can 1801 Columbia Road trip up Starbucks? They've got 4,000 stores. They've got to have the formula down pat, know exactly what makes people walk in and order a Frappuccino.

Shannon Jones

All you can have to do is stand here and know. It's 11:30 and it's packed.

Katie Davis

Starbucks regional marketing director, Shannon Jones, stands in the doorway of 1801. She offers the track record. Starbucks has 35 stores in Washington DC and has never closed one.

Shannon Jones

We've been looking at Adams Morgan for two and a half plus years, trying to get the right space here for the neighborhood. And finally, the stars aligned, and we were able to get the this great space on the corner.

Katie Davis

She says this, and I want to say, which stars are you talking about? Think about it though. Starbucks has a product that's physically addictive, and enough money to wait forever for the store to turn a profit. The neighborhood's full of office workers, freelancers, dot-commers, and consultants. Shannon Jones says, what ruins other businesses is often what works for Starbucks. Take the lack of parking, not a problem.

Shannon Jones

It's amazing, the way that people, even when they're in their car, will find a way to get in to Starbucks and get their drinks. So what we really look for is also a great storefront.

Katie Davis

I want to run a couple of theories by you for why previous tenants haven't worked. And one is, we're standing right under it. There is one realtor in the neighborhood who thinks that the door should be moved.

Shannon Jones

Absolutely not. One of our busiest stores in Washington is Liberty Place, and it has, literally, the same kind of entrance. It's kind of on a corner, kind of tucked in, and, literally, that store is probably no more than a 1,000 square feet, and the volume that it does. In terms of the entrance, definitely, we're excited about where this entrance is, and where it sits, because, I mean, it looks out on the entire neighborhood. So this was one thing we knew we didn't want to change.

Katie Davis

Another theory is that this is sort of an island, and you can't get people to cross over for some reason. No one can really explain why it's an island, but I wonder what you think about that?

Shannon Jones

I think again that people want to come into Starbucks, which is great. People need their coffee, and they'll cross streets for it.

Katie Davis

And then the last one is this. When some people have tried to explain to me why other people haven't made it, they just flat out say, well, I think the place is jinxed. I think there's a curse. So what do you say to them?

Shannon Jones

I actually say-- and it's funny, because we've heard all of these things too-- and we're here to stay. And I think everybody will be happy to see us here when we're celebrating our 20th anniversary in Washington.

Katie Davis

At the end of the interview, I have to say I'm sold. Starbucks will be the one that makes it. When I float this, Pat the realtor predicts Starbucks will last 13 months, no longer. And Sid, well, Sid can't help himself. He just double, double dares them to try.

Sid Drazin

Nobody's been in there for a long period of time. Boston Market went running real quick. Long John Silver's disappeared. What do you think, those people don't know what business is, that Starbucks knows everything? OK, we'll find out. Let them have it, and we'll watch them go into the ground.

Katie Davis

The truth is though, many people will cross their fingers for the new Starbucks. They've been waiting for someone to light up those windows. Because as entertaining as it is to project all this drama onto that corner, it would be a relief to see someone figure out what works there. Every time it goes dark, you get this feeling that the dead space is gaining power. That it's swallowing up projects, life savings, and dreams. You start to use the other side of the street.

Ira Glass

Katie Davis in Washington DC. Coming up, casing the state of Vermont before you try to take it all. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Or Give Me Death.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, regime change in everyday life. Stories of the new people coming in, taking over, full of hubris. And how hard it is to win over the locals even in the most mundane of settings.

We've arrived at act two of our program, act two, or give me death. Libertarians, you've probably heard of them, right? Maybe you aren't exactly sure what they stand for. All right, here is a short list: no gun laws, no restrictions on drug use, no income tax. And I'll say that one again, no taxes. They'd like to make government as small as humanly possible. Maybe you also know, they almost never get elected to office, any office. Last year a guy named Jason Sorens came up with a plan to remedy that. His plan, gather up some 20,000 libertarians, move to a state, a small state, vote the friends into office, and then slowly take over. Sarah Koenig got herself invited to a recruiting meeting of The Free State Project.

Sarah Koenig

The meeting was in College Park, Maryland at a restaurant designed to look like a French farmhouse. About 35 people were waiting for Jason to arrive. I thought they were going to be sort of like republicans, only more so but that wasn't quite it. There was something at once bookish and eager about them, like people in love with an idea and happy to chat about it if you show the least amount of interest. This is Nixie Chesnovitch. She looks nothing like my libertarian stereotype. She's young and hip and has cropped purple hair.

Nixie Chesnovitch

I often think about what it must have been like for the founders of this nation. They were trying a very radical sort of idea. When they signed the Declaration of Independence they thought they were signing away their lives, and yet they did it.

Sarah Koenig

You got tears in your eyes when you were talking about the founding fathers.

Nixie Chesnovitch

I guess-- I think it's kind of egotistical to say that I think about The Free State Project that way, that I am founding a whole new nation. But I do think that we are carrying on the founder's dreams. They said that if you see tyranny, you have to do something about that. Here's a Republic if you can keep it.

Sarah Koenig

Tyranny might sound a bit extreme coming from these people; they hardly seem oppressed. They have multiple degrees, good jobs, some with the government, families, and they like where they live. So what's their big complaint? It's not only that there are too many tax laws and too many gun laws. There are too many laws period. They all have this injured feeling that it wasn't supposed to be this way. As if the promise of American freedom born in 1776 was made to them personally, and 227 years later everyone but them has forgotten.

Nixie Chesnovitch

I can't tell if I'm breaking a law. It has gotten to the point where there's so many laws on the books that by carrying a simple lock-blade knife in some states, which is a common accouterment where I'm from, it's something you just have.

Sarah Koenig

She's from rural Tennessee.

Nixie Chesnovitch

That is illegal in some states. I mean, it's illegal to carry pliers in your pocket in Texas, I learned last night. It's just ridiculous.

Sarah Koenig

Jason Sorens arrives. It turns out the leader of this revolution is 26 years old and looks about 19. He's wearing a white turtleneck, pale-blue jeans, and resembles a dark-haired Macaulay Culkin. I wonder if maybe this is all part of some experiment for his doctorate, which he is getting in political science at Yale. It isn't. He stands in front of the gathering while they order food-- mostly burgers and curly fries-- and lays out the plan.

Jason Sorens

Thanks Steve, and it's good to see you all here. For those of you not completely familiar with the Free State Project, we're circulating a statement of intent, basically saying that you agree to move to a single state of the US. Once 20,000 people sign up, the move begins. And there is a five year period in which to move.

Sarah Koenig

Hearing him talk, you feel not so much as if you're in the presence of a political rabble browser, but a supremely intelligent and gentle rabbit. The initial goals of the Free State Project, he tells them, would be to get rid of taxes, privatize all public schools, and abolish eminent domain and zoning laws.

He thinks the 20,000 and their allies could start to win local elections by the year 2010. By 2020 they'd have state offices. A governor and a sympathetic state supreme court by about 2025. The project is about freedom, so bigots and homophobes need not sign up. And yes, they have a mascot. A cartoon porcupine because Jason says, it's cute and not aggressive, but you wouldn't want to mess with it.

Later Jason tells me how it all started. Libertarians have been derisively called the party of 2%, because there's so few of them. Jason thought, well there are fifty states, each is 2% of the Union, why not all move to one?

Jason Sorens

Well, I wrote this essay for The Libertarian Enterprise, which is an online journal, and I submitted it to the editor, and he was really excited about it and thought it was really good. I said, oh, maybe this idea isn't so bad after all her. And he decided to publish it. The next day I had gotten probably 60 or 70 email messages. And they kept coming in the days after that. About 200 total saying, let's do this. Let's do this project.

Sarah Koenig

Libertarians have tried other projects, some have sounded like sci-fi: a long term rental of a valley in Somalia, or building a city on pylons somewhere off the coast of Honduras. By comparison Jason's plan seems eminently sensible. Before he knew it , he was in charge of a somewhat ragtag internet movement, one he now works on practically full-time. The website, which Jason created, includes statistical analyses of each state under consideration. Prospective members learn encouraging facts like that the cheapest place to mount a political campaign is North Dakota, and that Alaska has the lowest state and local taxes.

Jason Sorens

The government has treated the Constitution like a dirty rag, basically. There was a time when it was clear that the government didn't have any role in education, social security, or crime control. That's a state matter, not for the federal government. And now the federal government does all those things. I've never had anyone adequately explain to me why we needed an amendment for alcohol prohibition, yet drug prohibition requires no such amendment. The government simply does it, and there is no constitutional grounds for opposing it, apparently.

Sarah Koenig

Jason's not like anybody I've ever met. He's so steeped in theory that even when the tape recorder isn't rolling it's hard to get him to talk like an ordinary person, like someone who isn't say, actually participating in the Constitutional Convention.

But no one at the meeting seems fazed by this. Maybe it's just his elegant posture and impossibly clear skin, but Jason has this quiet charisma. He seems selfless, and so completely motivated by his idea that when you're around him, you wonder if this is someone you'll talk about some day and say, I met him when he was 26, before anyone had heard of him. People ask him questions about his favorite state on the list, but as the leader, he demurs.

One guy asks about states with long coastlines and the s-word. And for a minute I have no idea what he's talking about.

Libertarian 1

Wouldn't it be kind of easier to do the s-word with a state like Delaware or somebody like that or even Alaska, rather than something like Wyoming, because it's kind of hardest if they decided to close airspace. You're not going to get anybody in or out, that kind of thing.

Sarah Koenig

Then I realize he's talking about secession. Consider this, more than 3,000 people have already pledged to move. When the list reaches 5,000, they'll choose a destination from the 10 states. Jason expects that to happen this year. One of the candidate states is Vermont. Yes, Vermont, the only state that elected a socialist to Congress. Jason gets invited to Vermont to talk to a property-rights group about his project, and I go along.

Vermonters

We pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America--

Sarah Koenig

It's in a Best Western conference room in the town of Waterbury. About 40 people show up, mostly conservative Republicans wearing sensible winter boots and carrying mugs of coffee from home. This is a good crowd for him. What he calls, liberty friendly. We learned that adding 20,000 people to the state could actually swing some local races. The only libertarian in the state legislature just lost reelection by 127 votes. David McCullough is an eighth generation Vermonter, and a former state rep.

David Mccullough

Vermont is still small. 600,000 people and like 220,000 don't vote. And when they don't vote, they're yours baby in politics. People are sheep, that's my opinion. They're interested in the football game. In Rome, they had the gladiators. It's the same, exact thing. You talk, I don't do politics, I just do football. I don't do politics, I just do snow-machining. I don't do politics, I'm just into arm-wrestling or whatever.

Sarah Koenig

We took a quick poll of the room. About five people said they'd be interested in signing up for the project. One of them is Bill Sayre, a lobbyist for the forestry industry and a dead ringer for Ted Koppel. He tells Jason how encouraging it is to see someone so young with such promising new ideas about liberty. And then he signs the pledge.

Bill Sayre

So I'd be happy to, and I will do so right now.

Sarah Koenig

What does the statement say?

Bill Sayre

It says, I hereby state my solemn intent to move to a state in the United States designated by a vote of the Free State Project.

Sarah Koenig

It could happen, people at the meeting tell us. It happened before. And then they talk about the so-called liberal takeover of Vermont. Back in the '70s, the demographics of the state began changing. Outsiders were moving in, a mixture of city-people, and hippies, and back-to-the-land types. And they were liberals. They elected other liberals to office, and left-leaning state policy followed. Vermont is now the only state to legalize civil unions of gays and lesbians for instance.

And the explanation that made the most sense to a lot of people was that there had been a conspiracy. Almost everyone we talked to brings it up. They mentioned, darkly, an article in Playboy magazine that supposedly incited the movement. The article exists, April 1972. A writer named Richard Pollak found two students at Yale, Jason's school, who proposed moving all the like-minded anti-war liberals to one state, basically Jason's plan plus hippies.

None of our interviewees had actually ever met anyone who'd crossed state lines because of Playboy magazine. Still if liberals could take over Vermont, why not libertarians?

The next morning we drive to Burlington to have breakfast with the mayor, Peter Clavelle, a Democrat. I notice, a little warily, that the mayor has actually prepared for this meeting by reading the Free State Project website. He's printed out a copy of Jason's essay called "Vermont Report" and highlighted various phrases like hippie-takeover. The mayor orders an omelet, and we ask him to draw a map of Vermont showing where Jason might get support for the project.

Peter Clavelle

[INAUDIBLE] Vermont that's a little bit like this. And then fitting nicely into Vermont is New Hampshire, which is like so. And here's the Connecticut River. And I think, in terms of building this libertarian stronghold, the best bet might be to cross the river, "Live free or die," state.

Sarah Koenig

And so it begins. They start debating drugs, housing, taxes, and the big one, public schools. Jason wants to eliminate them. He explains, that since taxes would be next to nothing in libertarian Vermont, people could afford to pay tuition or home-school their kids. The mayor doesn't buy it.

Peter Clavelle

That's fine, but how about those in our society that are less advantaged, our low and moderate income citizens, others that are vulnerable, seniors, people with physical and mental disabilities? I think if we embraced, wholesale, the libertarian philosophy, I think a lot of those folks would be left behind. I haven't heard much discussion as to how their needs and issues would be met in this utopian society.

Sarah Koenig

Then Jason does something I've never seen him do. He drops the economic theory and tells a personal anecdote. It occurs to me, this is the first time he's ever been in a situation where he had to persuade nonbelievers, liberals, or people who just don't care.

Jason Sorens

Well, I think my own views on that come partly from my own experience. Because I did grow up in a single-parent family, sort of at the poverty-line, four kids. I was the oldest of four. And my mom didn't believe in taking government subsidies or anything. We did kind of rely on charities for a while, and she eventually got a job at a private school. So we were able to go to the private school for free, basically.

Sarah Koenig

The public school he went to was terrible, Jason says. The private school was good. So disadvantaged kids like he was might be better off without public schools, which he considers a state-run monopoly. Pretty soon, the mayor has to go to church, and Jason talks to other people in the diner. For about 20 minutes Jason debates with one guy, who keeps saying he just can't see how it would all work.

Man In Diner

Well, you're backpedalling. I mean, a moment ago you wanted private schools, and now you're willing to settle for just repealing Act 60.

Jason Sorens

Right, repealing Act 60 would just be a first step.

Sarah Koenig

By the end of it, Jason has held his own, but he's sweating. Several people we meet warn Jason about the logistical problems his plan would invite. Among them is Anthony Pollina. He's a Progressive who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor last year.

Anthony Pollina

You'll find, if you were to live here, that it's very difficult to change the Vermont Constitution, actually, on a practical level. Which is just something that you might want to keep in mind. It takes about eight years.

Sarah Koenig

Then there's the car situation.

Anthony Pollina

What this movement would represent to Vermont is a major problem with adequate parking. It simply would overburden the system. And we are talking about a state, largest city in the state has 30,000 people. So that would certainly represent a major influx of people. And while their intentions may be the best, their strategy of saying that we will bring this large number of people to Vermont tells me two things. They don't understand Vermont, because Vermonters will react very negatively to that, I believe. And secondly, that it actually will present a very practical burden to the state of Vermont. Which, if nothing else, will generate a lot of resentment from Vermonters.

Sarah Koenig

When we leave, Jason seems downcast by what he's heard.

Jason Sorens

I mean, I don't care if Massachusetts goes communist or Utah goes fascist or whatever. They can do that if they want, so long as they maintain a democratic system. I'm just looking for a place where I and others like me can settle down and have something to call our own.

Sarah Koenig

I mean, the problem is, is that other people already call it their own. We've built this up in a certain way, because this is the way we like it. And, essentially, who are you to try to undermine that or try to change that? And aren't you going to run into that wherever you go?

Jason Sorens

Well, we'll run into a little bit of that wherever we go, but I also think we should be given a chance.

Sarah Koenig

Do you feel a little bit homeless?

Jason Sorens

Yeah. I mean, I've lived in a variety of places, and that is part of the reason. I never really had that kind of a place growing up that I could say was my home. So I feel kind of homeless. I think a lot of other people do simply because of their views, they don't feel at home where they are.

Sarah Koenig

We walk around downtown Burlington, and I ask Jason to give me a tour. I tell him to pretend it's the year 2050 and libertarians have been in control for 30 years. I want to know what will be different.

Sarah Koenig

So what's that seal up there? We're looking at city hall.

Jason Sorens

Well, city hall would probably still be a government building. You probably still need one. It might be smaller. Or we could probably just rent space for our meeting every month or so on the third story of this corner building or something like that.

Sarah Koenig

So would you sell city hall?

Jason Sorens

Yeah, if we're able to do that, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

He tells me private companies would pick up the cigarette butts and styrofoam cups from the streets. On Sundays you could buy scotch and visit a brothel. Roads would also be owned by private companies, which would set speed limits and solicit billboard advertising. Zoning would disappear, so McDonald's could open up next to your house, which you could paint any color you wanted. And everyone has more money, because no one pays taxes. We cross a street to a snow covered park.

Jason Sorens

The sign says, City Hall Park, City of Burlington, Department of Parks and Recreation. So we we would be eliminating that department and privatizing this common here.

Sarah Koenig

Privatizing the common? But the sign, you didn't finish reading it.

Jason Sorens

That's right. It says, for everyone's enjoyment please no skateboarding, dogs must be leashed, no alcohol or glass bottles. Now, see, after this has been sold off, probably some of those rules would still be there. I think no skateboarding is probably kind of a silly regulation. I think that's just pure prejudice on the part of the city officials. No glass bottles, I mean, come on. That's a bit extreme too. Sort of joking, but I don't think areas like this should be tax funded certainly. It's theft, ultimately.

Sarah Koenig

You get something for it. You get a public space where people come together and play chess or eat their lunch. People want to come here.

Jason Sorens

But if they get something from it, then they should be willing to support it in some way without having to be coerced into it, which is really what taxation is.

Sarah Koenig

A company buys it, they're not going to keep it as a public park. You don't make money off a public park. So would we have no-- it would be gated. So would there be any public space? Would there be, in the city of Burlington, would we have any public space, purely public space?

Jason Sorens

Purely public space? I don't think so.

Sarah Koenig

So this is how Jason wants to live. The free market would dictate everything and not big corporations, he says, since without big government support, they wouldn't exist. But individual business people, free to thrive in a regulation free world. What's a little weird about this vision is not that it's necessarily wrong. After all, the Founding Fathers probably would be shocked at how much power the federal government now has. It's that these fights have already been fought, and the libertarians lost.

Jason Sorens

It's very frustrating, because we're taught when we're young that the American system is an open one, that you can have an influence on, that abides by rules. But it doesn't abide by rules anymore. The government does what it wants. And the courts are in the pocket of the legislature, and we have no recourse. In other words, it's almost like we're facing a monolithic system that is almost irretrievably lost.

Sarah Koenig

Jason's hopeful anyway. As he frequently points out, seemingly stranger things have happened in America. Look at the Mormons, they basically took over a state. And there have been other historical migrations-- the pilgrims, freed slaves who fled north after the Civil War. So why not 20,000 libertarians agitated about the state of modern capitalism? Why not a group of people inspired by the anti-federalists Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry?

Sarah Koenig

Do you ever imagine yourself having conversations with them?

Jason Sorens

Actually I do imagine myself sort of in their milieu. Yes, I have imagined myself.

Sarah Koenig

At the Constitutional Convention or something?

Jason Sorens

Well at the Constitutional Convention or, especially, during the Revolution. Would I have been one of the people who took a stand and joined the Revolution? I think there's a very important question, because, in a lot of ways, you could argue that Americans are now much more oppressed than they were under King George. After all, that was just about a Stamp Tax. And now we have a lot more than that.

Sarah Koenig

The problem for Jason is that people were mad about the Stamp Tax. But, it's safe to say, the vast majority of Vermonters are not mad about the fact that they have public parks and public schools and zoning laws. Jason doesn't see this, or if he does, he doesn't mind. After all, if he were the sort of person easily intimidated by rotten odds, he wouldn't be leading this movement. As he's waiting for his flight at the Burlington airport, I ask him whether, after everything he's heard, Vermont has moved up or down on the list of takeover states? He thinks for a second, and then says, cheerfully, up.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

Act Three. The Heart Is A Lonely Junta.

Ira Glass

Act three, the heart is a lonely junta. So what if you didn't want the regime change? What if you didn't see it coming? Cartoonist Jeffrey Brown found himself in that position in his personal life. He was writing this book-like comic about his love for his girlfriend. If you've seen this, it's these scratchy little drawings, hundreds of pages of them. Here is a typical page.

Jeffery Brown

So this is from the first page of a story called "Morning Shower." And in the first panel, we've just woken up. And she says, Teresa says to me, hi. And I say, good morning. In the second panel, I kind of lean over and I'm kissing her, and she's got her arm around my neck again, and her eyes are closed.

And the third panel, I'm looking into her eyes and I say, you're pretty. And in the fourth panel, she just kind of smiles back and puts her hand on my cheek. And the next panel, I ask her, hey, do you want to take a shower together? And in the last panel, she smiles and says, OK.

Ira Glass

Now this is from your book, a novel in pictures and words, called Clumsy. It's 200 pages long, and every page is pretty much some moment of you adoring her.

Jeffery Brown

Yeah, yeah. It was kind of intended to be this kind of tribute to the relationship, like a celebration of it. And while I was writing it, we ended up breaking up. So that kind of changed the ending I had planned.

Ira Glass

Was she when one of your first girlfriends or your first girlfriend?

Jeffery Brown

She was my second girlfriend. The only other girlfriend I'd had was a two month long relationship. So it was a new experience.

Ira Glass

And so how long after you broke up were you still drawing the comic book?

Jeffery Brown

About two weeks, two and a half weeks. I just remember a lot of moping, just a lot of being obviously sad. And then drawing 10 pages and then crying afterward. It's not necessarily the best way to get over someone, I guess.

Ira Glass

So for two and a half weeks, you're basically drawing her face over and over and over again.

Jeffery Brown

But, I mean, when you break up with someone aren't you just drawing their face over and over and over again anyway? So it's just like I was doing something instead of sitting there thinking about it.

Ira Glass

So you've agreed to adapt some of these to read over the radio. I should say to listeners who are listening with children, you do refer to sex, the fact that sex occurs, not with a lot of explicitness. So let's hear it.

Jeffery Brown

OK. So this is one of those linchpin stories that anyone with any sense realizes that something is horribly wrong with their relationship. It's called "Cigarette."

We're sitting outside in the motel parking lot. Someone asks if anyone else wants a cigarette.

"Do you mind if I have one?" Teresa asks me.

"You know how I feel," I say, "it's your decision."

She smokes, and I go inside the motel room and listen to them through the window talking about drinking and smoking. When she's done, she comes into the room, and my shirt that she's wearing smells like smoke.

"I came to see how angry you are with me," she says.

"You know I hate smoking," I say.

"I don't need you making me feel like an evil person every time I do something," she says. "I gave up smoking weed for you and that's a pretty big thing. I can't hold your hand 24 hours a day, can't kiss you 24 hours a day, can't have sex with you 24 hours a day."

I stare at the wall above her head. She sits there calmly with her arms crossed, waiting.

Ira Glass

After you broke up, what's the strip you wrote immediately after? What's the next one?

Jeffery Brown

I think it was this Christmas story.

Ira Glass

OK, why don't you read that?

Jeffery Brown

This is called "Book of Kisses."

For Christmas I draw a book of kisses for her. It has drawings of 112 different kisses, soft kisses, French kisses, nibbles on the ear, pecks on the forehead. She wants to open presents right away, and she has me open mine first. I give her the book, and she looks at it and kisses me and hugs me. She looks at it again.

"My presents are never as good as yours," she says.

Ira Glass

Is there a part of going back and drawing and then having these moments which is partly about just figuring out what went wrong?

Jeffery Brown

Yeah, only in retrospect, though. Some of the stories that like seem like total foreshadowing we're just like, oh, that was something that I remember happening. I didn't think it was too bad. Then I write the story and then looking back it's like-- everyone that reads Clumsy seems to see it coming, and I just never did.

Ira Glass

Read more.

Jeffery Brown

Toward the end of the book I kind of alternate these horrible foreshadowing stories with the sweetest possible stories that I can I think up. So this is a sweet story. It is called "Stay up Forever."

The night before she has to leave to go back to Florida, she's putting her underwear back on.

"What are you doing?" I ask.

"Putting clothes on."

"But it's your last night here. Don't you want to sleep naked with me?"

"But if we have sex again," she says, "I'll fall right asleep. And I don't want to sleep. I want to stay up with you forever. I don't want this night to be over."

I tell her I don't want her to leave, and I'm glad we met, and 100 other nice things.

One day, she'll tell me, she wishes she could remember all of them.

There's a lot of really short one-page stories that I thought were just kind of really meaningless and specific to me. But apparently it's all very universal and ordinary.

Ira Glass

Did friends tell you afterwards though, that these are experiences we've all had?

Jeffery Brown

Yeah, I thought, look how unique my experience was. I'm going to write about it. But that's just the opposite. It's amazing how un-extraordinary everything that happened to me is.

Ira Glass

You're disappointed that it's so universal?

Jeffery Brown

Well, not now. I was just surprised, surprised that it was so universal. But, I mean, it was only my second girlfriend too, so it was all new to me.

Ira Glass

Read another.

Jeffery Brown

OK, and this one's called "Bath."

The last time we had sex was at an airport hotel. Afterwards, she asked me if I would be too angry if she took a bath alone instead of a shower with me.

And I say, "OK." I ask if I can help.

"It'll be boring for you," she says.

"How could I be bored when you're naked?"

She lies back in the tub, and I run soap over her.

"That's enough soap," she says.

I sit on the toilet seat watching her float there with closed eyes.

"I told you this would be boring."

"It's not," I say.

She holds her nose and slides completely underwater for what seems like a minute. She pops up and pulls the hair out of her eyes.

"The water is so soapy, you probably just have to get in the tub, and you'll be clean," she says.

She leaves and that's what I do. When I get back to the bedroom her eyes are closed, and she has the covers pulled up. I climb into bed and fall asleep holding both of her hands.

Ira Glass

Jeffrey Brown, his comic book novel is called Clumsy. It's available at TheHolyConsumption.com.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well our program was produced today by Diane Cook and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, and Starlee Kine. Senior producer Julie Snyder, David Kestenbaum, Jonathan Goldstein also worked on stories in today's show. Production help from Tom Bachman Katie O'dunn. Katie Davis's story was from her ongoing series, Neighborhood Stories, which gets funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Special thanks today Chris Babcock, Hugh Hamrick, Patricia Pyle and Susan Burton.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia.

He says that if all those new programs that are now on public radio: Tavis Smiley, On The Media, The Next Big Thing, they want to move into that store on the corner. Go ahead, just go ahead and try.

Man

Boston Market went running real quick. Long John Silver's disappeared. What do you think those people don't know what business is? Let them have it.

Ira Glass

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

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