Transcript

245:

Allure of the Mean Friend
Transcript

Originally aired 09.05.2003

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/245

Prologue.

Ira Glass

In a way, the story is always the same. There was this kid. She was mean, she was popular. It's such a fixture of childhood, you can just walk up to a kid on the sidewalk or at a public pool, and they'll tell you.

Child

The popularist is this girl. She's in my grade. She really mean, and she has a lot of friends. I wanted to play with her and then she had no friends, so she said yeah. The other day, I wanted to play with her again, and her friends were there, and she said, get lost.

Sometimes she'll be being mean to my sister. And I don't like that. She's always telling somebody what they can and can't do. She acts like she's the boss of people. She's real bossy.

She thinks she's got the rhythm and the gear.

I'm mostly the popular one in my class, but I have a lot of other popular friends. This boy in my class, he liked me, and every time he would come by me, I would tell him to get out of my way. Everybody says that he's the nerdiest boy in our class. He'll start bothering me and my friends, and we'll tell him to leave us alone. My friends will even tell him, don't even look at her.

Ira Glass

We talked to a high school sophomore about all this, Lillie Allison, 15, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. And she said, in high school anyway, it's kind of like the laws of nature. Someone will always wind up on top.

Lillie Allison

Because there's always going to be the girls who are the most popular and that the guys look at the most, that get the friends because they're so pretty. There's always going to be those girls. And I think once people get the idea that they have that power, they're going to use it. And they know that they can be mean to people and still be loved by everyone. You have nothing to lose, so why don't you go ahead and be mean to everybody that's not as good as you?

Ira Glass

In Lillie's class, the girls like that-- the popular ones-- had been her best friends.

Lillie Allison

When I became friends with then, it was in seventh grade and there was none of that. It was before the superlatives, and before there was a most attractive. And I'll admit, I was one of those girls until the first time they kicked me out of their little group. And then I saw how it really is. That's what we were, we were the Four Blondes.

Ira Glass

And what was it like, being one of those girls?

Lillie Allison

It was fun, you know? The attention is kind of fun. Look at them looking at us. It's fun. It makes you feel powerful. Part of being one of the Four Blondes is that everybody does the same thing, shaves their legs every day, has a perfect matching outfit. You know what I mean?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Lillie Allison

Makeup always has to be perfect. Not too much, not too little. Suck up to the teachers. I remember I went two weeks without wearing a skirt, and one of them called me and was like, you have to wear a skirt tomorrow. You've worn pants too many days in a row. And if you don't fit that, then you get kicked out for a little while.

Ira Glass

Lillie got kicked out at the beginning of this summer. She made a mistake. She didn't do what the other girls wanted at some party. So they called up to kick her out.

Lillie Allison

One of them is like-- she's the mean one. It's kind of like the Spice Girls. We all have our own little identity. You know what I mean? There's was the tough one, the cute one, the smart one. You know I mean?

Ira Glass

And the mean one.

Lillie Allison

Yeah. And so when we all got in this fight, they called me up and they put the mean one on the phone. They'd tell her what to say. She'd say it to me then put me on hold, figure out what else they wanted her to say, and then say it.

Ira Glass

Wait, they just put you put on hold? So you just sit there on hold waiting for them to come up with the next mean thing?

Lillie Allison

That's right. And they didn't even realize how mean it was.

Ira Glass

Of course it doesn't always end in high school. And this isn't just about teenage girls. There are popular bullies in business and politics-- very successful ones in politics. Our movies and TV shows are full of them. There's an entire industry of gangster rap. Today on our show, the allure of the mean friend, and what is so alluring about them in the first place, explained. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our show today in four acts.

Act One, Return to the Scene of the Crime. In that act, Jonathan Goldstein interrogates the girls, now grown up, who terrorized him and his classmates years ago in school, and finds that they can be just as scary as ever.

Act Two, Does Niceness Pay? In that act, we conduct a little scientific experiment on tape with hidden microphones about whether niceness can triumph and be rewarded in a normal business setting, a setting that will surely be familiar to you.

Act Three, And What's Going On with You? A case study in every word out of a friend's mouth meaning its exact opposite.

Act Four, Keeping It In the Family. In that act, Bernard Cooper's amazing story about the bill that he got from his own father for, well, the entire cost of his childhood. Stay with us.

Act One. Return To The Scene Of The Crime.

Jonathan Goldstein

Sometimes when I'm talking with my friend Jackie Cohen, I will suddenly stop and just look at her. I look at her as though I've only just then realized who it is I am sitting there talking with. "Jackie Cohen," I will say, shaking my head in disbelief. "Jackie Cohen." For you see, Jackie Cohen was the meanest, most popular girl in our junior high, a shepherd among sheep. Nowadays, Jackie Cohen and I are friends, good friends. In fact, for two years we were roommates, during which time she was a very nurturing figure in my life, cooking for me, taking care of the bills, and doing most if not all of the cleaning. My domestic role is confined to stuff like drinking Jim Beam and keeping her up past her bedtime with my impression of Robert De Niro and Edith Bunker doing the lobster scene from Annie Hall.

"Alvy, a lobster crawled into my purse."

Just the same, sometimes when I feel like it, I can see her through the eyes of my grade seven self. And when I do that and say the words, "Jackie Cohen," it is as though it is no longer just the name of the woman before me, but a name for something famous like a soft drink or a rock band. If I could go back in time and tell the young Jonathan Goldstein that one day he would be friends with the most popular girl at Western Laval Junior High, that young Jonathan Goldstein, taking in the utter absurdity of such a proposition, would laugh convulsively until his nose produced mucus and his eyeglasses needed adjusting.

Let me explain to you the power that was Jackie Cohen's. So great was her authority than in grade seven, my best friend, Robert Ceolic wore a three-piece suit to school with the intention of asking her out for souvlaki. I'll never forget the exhilarated look on his face as he ran back to our locker bank to tell me that, while Jackie Cohen had turned him down, she did say that they could be "hi, bye" friends. This meant that when they saw each other in the halls, they could nod to each other, hi and bye. Robert loosened his necktie like a middle-aged ad exec who had just closed an important account.

Another thing was that Jackie Cohen didn't like bad smells. She liked nice smells, like perfumed fancy erasers or freshly mimeographed sheets of paper. So if someone's smell was not to her taste, she would leave a note on their desk. The note would read, "You smell. Use deodorant." Jackie Cohen would call it being honest.

Jackie Cohen was also the only 13-year-old girl in school who could actually pull off a successful withering look. There was a month where I sat behind her, and one time during a French dictation, I was seized with an uncontrollable attack of coughing. It would later be diagnosed as a whooping cough that would leave me in bed for a week with a fever of 103, but at that moment, it was nothing more, nothing less, than a nuisance to Jackie. She let me know this by whipping her head around, her straight brown hair lashing about like a thousand throwing stars, and witheringly looking me straight in the eye. Jackie turned back around and I'd grit my teeth, vowing not to allow a single cough to escape my mouth.

My eyes tearing, I clenched my fists and I trembled. I knew, objectively speaking, that Jackie Cohen's dictation was more important than my own health. I knew that.

The teacher, finally seeing my condition, send me out to get some water. At the fountain, just as I was about to drink, my knees buckled and I began to throw up. I wasn't the kind of kid who vomited much, and the experience felt very personal, sort of like crying in your underwear. The Special Ed teacher in the room next to the bathroom came out and walked me back to my class.

Jackie, who sat beside the door, as was the wanton responsibility of the most popular, let me in. Seeing me, she gave me this look-- not the withering look I'd grown accustomed to, but another look, a look then until then I'd only seen on the face of adults. It was a look of profound pity. I saw in that look a sorrow for everything she had ever put me through, and for years I held that look close to my heart.

Mary Clode

Jackie had really good hair.

Jonathan Goldstein

This is Mary Clode. She was Jackie's best friend all through school, and they're still best friends now.

Mary Clode

Very good hair. Nicely layered, kind of feathered. And she had a special technique. Well, first of all, she always walked around with a comb in her back pocket that stuck out for all to see. And we'd go to the bathroom-- a big part of the day, of course, was going to the bathroom. And she had a special technique. She'd bend her head over. She'd count one, two, three, and then take her two index fingers and say, "Flip" and flip her hair back. And then it would fall. The feathers would all fall beautifully in place.

Jonathan Goldstein

What was Jackie Cohen's allure? Did people like her despite the fact that she was mean? Or did they like her because she was so mean?

Mary Clode

I think it was a bit of both. Because when you were with her, you felt really alive. And she was so fun and she was so full of life. So it was great being with her. But them before you knew it, you were on the outs. She was looking for a certain quality, and if you didn't have it, you got kicked out. So it was also, maybe, the fun excitement of never knowing when your turn was going to come to be on the outs. And you were always trying to do your best to stay on the inside. So it was pretty exciting.

Jonathan Goldstein

Did my name ever come up in junior high? Did she ever mention my name?

Mary Clode

Oh, yeah. I remember a time. You were new to school. You were the new kid, and I wanted to go over to talk to you. And Jackie said, no, don't go talk to him. Don't talk to him. He looks dirty.

Jonathan Goldstein

She thought I looked dirty?

Mary Clode

Yeah. She did.

Jonathan Goldstein

That was how my name came up?

Mary Clode

Yeah, that you looked dirty. You were the dirty-looking new kid.

Jonathan Goldstein

OK, first of all-- the new kid. The party Mary Clode is referring to was in grade six. I had been going to that school since grade three. I was in the same school as them, evidently completely unnoticed, for three years. And second of all-- dirty. Although my boyhood toilette was second to none, and although I was facially hairless, for some strange reason I gave off the distinct impression of having a 5 o'clock shadow all over my body. So I decided to confront these slanderous accusations at their source. Ladies and gentlemen,

Jonathan Goldstein

Jackie Cohen. Jackie Cohen.

Jackie Cohen

Jon, please don't tell me the whole interview's going to be like this.

Jonathan Goldstein

I asked Jackie Cohen if she remembered calling me dirty and new to Mary Clode. And she said she did. I then asked her to repeat the very line to me, right to my face.

Jackie Cohen

You know what I said.

Jonathan Goldstein

Come on.

Jackie Cohen

Why don't you say it?

Jonathan Goldstein

All right. I will.

Jackie Cohen

All right, fine.

Jonathan Goldstein

You said, don't talk to him because he's dirty. Well, maybe I was dirty.

Jackie Cohen

You were. And you still are.

Jonathan Goldstein

Jackie Cohen and I spent very combative hour talking, during which time she would not admit to any actual meanness. The furthest she would go in making any kind of concession was in acknowledging that back then, she, quote, "took care of business." A whole lot of business.

Jonathan Goldstein

Listen, no one is on trial. OK? We're here, just two friends chatting.

No, Jackie Cohen did not think she was mean in school. Take the whole story of Robert Ceolic asking her out in junior high. You know, Mr. "Hi, Bye." And she stood firmly behind her actions.

Jackie Cohen

Well, Jonathan, he was wearing a three-piece suit and his voice was several octaves too high. What am I going to say to the guy? Yes? And. And, not only did I tell him no, but I left him with his dignity. I actually had him thinking that we had a good thing going. We were going to be "hi, bye" friends.

Jonathan Goldstein

So what you're saying is that you're defending it. You're saying it was actually a nice thing that you did.

Jackie Cohen

It was very nice. Wasn't he very happy when he came into the room?

Jonathan Goldstein

He was happy, but I mean, he didn't know any better.

Jackie Cohen

Exactly. You want me to go on a date with that guy?

Jonathan Goldstein

Feel the way that laugh shivers you down to your toes? The way it taunts as it entices? That is the effect of a popular mean girl's laughter. The truth is that Jackie Cohen is no longer a popular mean girl at all. She's actually a doctor who works with the homeless. She's a really good person. But I still can't help relating to her as though the old Jackie Cohen is still somewhere buried inside of her.

Jonathan Goldstein

Let me ask you this. What happens to mean girl? Is the mean always there?

Jackie Cohen

Jon, these questions are boring, man.

Jonathan Goldstein

Oh, you don't like that one. That's OK. OK, let's do a little bit of role-playing, shall we? OK? You're going to be the grade eight Jackie Cohen, and I'm going to be the grade eight Jonathan Goldstein, OK? And I'm in the Western Laval Junior High radio club, and I'm sitting there to interview you. All right? OK. Here we go.

Jackie Cohen

OK. Yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

Um, Jackie?

Jackie Cohen

Yeah?

Jonathan Goldstein

Can I have a bit of your time to interview you?

Jackie Cohen

No.

Jonathan Goldstein

Why?

Jackie Cohen

I'm busy.

Jonathan Goldstein

But you're just--

Jackie Cohen

But thank you.

Jonathan Goldstein

But you're just leaning against the locker. You're not--

Jackie Cohen

But thank you, Jonathan. I'm really not interested.

Jonathan Goldstein

No, you see, you wouldn't have even been that polite.

Jackie Cohen

You're right? Honestly, I would have laughed and walked away.

Jonathan Goldstein

You see, this was the Jackie Cohen that I never got to talk to anymore. She's never like this. I mean, sure, she's always eager to let me know when someone in the room smells better than me, and she's quick to point out that my pasty white gut jingles when I play air guitar. But it always feels like a mere taste of the greatness that once was. So we continued to parry and thrust our way along.

Jackie Cohen

Is this over yet?

Jonathan Goldstein

And eventually the subject came around to Jackie's older sister, Maureen. Now let me just explain to you Maureen. As mean and popular as Jackie Cohen was, Maureen Cohen was more mean and more popular.

Jackie Cohen

Well, my sister definitely taught me some of the tricks of the trade by being very, very, very cruel with me, very bossy, very demanding. She would say that really she was doing me a big favor because without her, I would never have made it in this world, that I was just such a boring, nice little kid and she added a lot of spice to my life.

Jonathan Goldstein

In the pursuit of my mean popular girls scholarship, I knew I now had to talk with Maureen. I was not in the same city as her, so I asked my friend Joshua Carpatty if he would be good enough to go to her house and hold a mic to her while we talked on the phone. Josh has been scared of Maureen for years, and here he was sitting with her in her living room while her seven-year-old played on the floor at their feet.

As Maureen provided a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of her thoughts and actions, Josh sat just a few inches from her, a microphone gripped in his sweaty nervous hands. And as I talked with her, Maureen acknowledged that she'd been mean in high school. She made no bones about it, and to her, there was nothing to regret. It was high school and that's just how people acted.

Maureen Cohen

So what, you have this image of me, of being really mean all the time?

Jonathan Goldstein

But in an alluring way. You know what I mean? People crave it somehow. Obviously it works.

Maureen Cohen

Well, some people like to be abused. And you just sort of tap into it, you know?

Jonathan Goldstein

Right. And then you satisfy that craving that they're not even entirely aware of.

Maureen Cohen

That's right.

Jonathan Goldstein

Well, how do you detect that?

Maureen Cohen

I don't know. You talk to someone and you just feel whether or not you can play with them or not. Like, I think Josh loves the fact that I pay that kind of attention to him.

Jonathan Goldstein

Josh, the young man who's holding the microphone for you right now.

Maureen Cohen

Yeah, who's so scared he won't even look at me.

Jonathan Goldstein

At this point I started to get worried for Joshua. He had been reluctant even to go to Maureen's house, so I knew that at that point, as Maureen spoke his name, he was a shaky disoriented mess.

Jonathan Goldstein

Can you ask Josh if he's nervous with you right now?

Maureen Cohen

John, are you nervous around me right now? He doesn't want to answer because I'm here.

Jonathan Goldstein

Can you just put him on the phone for one second, so I can ask him?

Maureen Cohen

Yeah. Here, hold on. He wants to ask you a question.

Jonathan Goldstein

Hello?

Joshua Carpatty

[CLEARS THROAT]

Jonathan Goldstein

Are you afraid to talk in front of her?

Joshua Carpatty

You know.

Jonathan Goldstein

You're afraid. Just say yes if you're afraid.

Joshua Carpatty

Yes.

Jonathan Goldstein

OK. Has she got you on your guard?

Joshua Carpatty

Yeah, sure. Yeah.

Jonathan Goldstein

When I was finished speaking with Maureen, I called Josh up on his cell phone and he talked with me from his car.

Joshua Carpatty

It's so [BEEP] hot in this car. I'm telling you, man, you should be paying me extra.

Jonathan Goldstein

So what was it like in there?

Joshua Carpatty

I've got to tell you, it was a little intimidating. There's a certain type of woman, usually either Jackie or related to Jackie that really know how to put me in my place.

Jonathan Goldstein

So when she says that there are some people who crave to be abused, you would be one of those people.

Joshua Carpatty

She was looking directly at me when she said that. She was looking directly at me and she was pointing at me with her index finger. Not a lot of mystery there.

Jonathan Goldstein

But why this allure? Why are we so drawn to these mean girls.

Joshua Carpatty

Because they know. They look at you and they know. Other women who are nice or who are too timid, they try to pretend that they know who you are, which is garbage. But someone like Maureen or Jackie, they look right at you and say, I know you're garbage. You know you're garbage. Why pretend? I'm never going with you. I'm marrying the dentist. I'm not even going to look at you. And you're going to come over to my house, which is the biggest house I've ever seen in my entire [BEEP] life, and you're going to say-- you see this, garbage? This is what a real man provides for me. You know, you come here and you tape me for your stupid friend's radio show. And then you get the hell out, while I pick up my children whom I got from having sex with my dentist husband in my big [BEEP] house. Now get the [BEEP] out, garbage. Out.

I mean, with you-- she thinks of you as a harmless eccentric, you know, like a 90-year-old English guy puttering about in his garden. Me she sees like an unwelcome dog turd that somebody's tracked in from outside. And it hurts me. It really hurts me. I mean I think it would be too strong to say that I love Maureen, but I love Maureen. You know, I-- yeah. Want equals fear.

Jonathan Goldstein

But wait, is it the fear that--

Joshua Carpatty

Look, Jon, I'm not a sociologist. I don't know what's going on. I'm a piece of garbage to her, and it makes me want to just crawl up next to her like a flea on a tick on a tick on a dog. You know? I just want some of that good, good blood, even if it's my own blood.

Jonathan Goldstein

What about when Jackie said that saying that you can be "hi, bye" friends is actually a nice thing? What'd you think of that? To that guy who asked her out.

Joshua Carpatty

"Hi, bye" friends? You know what "hi, bye" friends really means? It means that when that guy went home later that night and hanged himself, that's the sound the rope made. [CREAKING] Hi, bye, hi, bye, hi, bye, hi, bye.

Jonathan Goldstein

Jackie Cohen. Jackie Cohen. Do you miss that person that was able to do those kinds of things?

Jackie Cohen

No, but I think you do. I think you miss the mean Jackie Cohen. I think you really do. You inquire about her a lot. I think you do.

Jonathan Goldstein

Is the sky that unleashes a bolt of lightning into the forehead of a friendly woodsman mean? Is it mean of the ravenous lion to devour the frightened zebra? As the first terrible bites sink into his legs and stomach, does the zebra look into the lion's eyes as though to say, why are you doing this to me, friend? And why, by my very nature, have I demanded it? When I bring all this up with Jackie, I realize that only the zebra would do a story like this. The lion could care less.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein's a contributing editor to our program and host of Wiretap on CBC Radio One, and also available now on some public radio stations in this country.

Act Two. Does Niceness Pay?

Ira Glass

Act Two, Does Niceness Pay? OK, sure, niceness might not get you the most friends in high school. Niceness might not help your career in the NFL, or on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, or in any super-competitive line of work. But you'd think that there might be a place for somewhere, like, for instance, waitressing. The whole point of the job is to help somebody else.

Well, consider this story. A waitress in Chicago named Troy Morris was working a Friday night shift with another waitress, Amy Rigali. Here's Troy.

Troy Morris

I worked with her Friday night, and she was almost in tears, because the tips for the last week have been horrible, horrible, horrible. Like, she's getting less than 15%. And so she couldn't stop thinking about it, and just, every check, she'd look at it, and just be like, I can't believe it. And she's just like, I can't do this anymore. Look at it. People hate me.

Ira Glass

This is Amy.

Amy Rigali

I feel like I don't know what I'm doing wrong. I'm trying so hard to do everything perfect. And all of these people are tipping me below.

Ira Glass

It made no sense. She'd been there four years, longer than anybody, knew the menu better, gave very quick service, and on the niceness scale, here's the word Troy uses to describe Amy.

Troy Morris

Super helpful. She's the sweetest person and smiles and is just patient and caring.

Ira Glass

On Sunday, Amy worked again. And this time, Amy says, her attitude was different.

Amy Rigali

I definitely went into it with this attitude of giving up, just like, I wash my hands of this. I'm just going to serve them and walk away. Because I was so frustrated.

Ira Glass

And what happened to your tips?

Amy Rigali

They were great. They were, a lot of them, over 20%. It was wild.

Troy Morris

And I came in, because we switch shifts-- like, she's getting off and I'm coming on. And she's just totally beaming, really happy. "I made great tips. I can't believe it. Now I know what to do."

Ira Glass

"Now I know what to do." Not be as nice?

Troy Morris

Yeah. Just not care.

Ira Glass

We can actually quantify exactly how much niceness was costing Amy. The difference between 15% tips and 20% tips works out to around $50 per shift. Is it possible that any waitress could make more money by being less nice? We decided to do a little experiment to find out. We would wire two waitresses with hidden microphones and then have them be super nice to half their tables and then cool, aloof, to the other half. They'd give equally good service to both tables.

We did our experiment in the restaurant where Troy and Amy work, Lula Cafe in Chicago's Logan Square. It's the kind of place that everybody always wants to have in their neighborhood. Small, wonderful food that is also very cheap. Half the entrees cost $6 or so. There's Moroccan couscous, there's vegetarian sushi, there are lots of carefully made sandwiches, and then there's this whole menu of higher-end specials every day, so it's possible to drop $20 on a grilled sea bass or organically raised lamb.

Amy had no interest in being wired for sound, but Troy was game. Like most of the staff, she's young-looking. She wore a neon zebra skirt and calf-high boots to work. Her arms were bare so you could see her tattoos.

Troy Morris

OK. That is really good. it's a little bit of a lighter, brighter flavor.

Ira Glass

Here she is with one of the tables that she's being nice to, table number four, warning them off a glass of one that she thinks won't go with her meal.

Troy Morris

So just so you know, it's a little bit on the sweet side. You want something fuller? Is that what you're thinking?

Ira Glass

In two minutes, Troy has their whole story. They're visiting from out of town, they seem to be falling in love, and they found this very non-touristy, out of the way place through careful research. She praises them on their homework.

Troy Morris

Good job, you guys.

Ira Glass

Nice is her usual style as a waitress. She recommends specials. She chats. She's a sweetheart. Being aloof is a little more effort for her.

Troy Morris

So table two that just sat down-- normally, I would already have talked to them, but I'm making them wait a little while.

Ira Glass

When she finally goes to table two, which has three serious-looking people in their forties. She doesn't ask them how they are, or if they have any questions about the menu. She doesn't recommend the sturgeon, which is her favorite, or anything else. These are her first and practically only words to table two.

Troy Morris

Hello. Have you guys decided?

Ira Glass

When they ask her to recommend a wine, she swallows and tells them:

Troy Morris

You know what? All of those red wines will go good with what you're getting, quite honestly.

Ira Glass

And then there was the guy sitting at the bar alone, noticeably good-looking, reading the New York Times. Troy gave me the rundown.

Troy Morris

He's a regular guy that always sits there. He orders a lot and he never tips great. He always tips just exactly 15%.

Ira Glass

Perfect for the experiment. Usually, Troy liked talking with him. If she played it aloof, would her tip go up? She walked over and he asked her what she was up to these days.

Troy Morris

Oh, you know. Working.

Ira Glass

Did you change your hair, he said. Is it different?

Troy Morris

Maybe I washed it.

Ira Glass

And so hours pass. People finish their meals, and when Troy starts collecting their money, the early results all seem to point in one direction. Take table two, the table she barely spoke with. Troy handed me their check.

Troy Morris

How does it look?

Ira Glass

OK, doing a little math here. Table two, 17.6% is what they tipped.

Troy Morris

Oh, really? And I wasn't nice to them at all.

Ira Glass

And yet--

Troy Morris

They tipped over 15%. Oh, I can't wait to see what table five tipped. Let me look.

Ira Glass

Table five was her hardest table by far, very demanding. And she was very attentive.

Troy Morris

Check this out.

Ira Glass

OK, table five you were sucking up to like I've never seen.

Troy Morris

I was so nice to them. I got them to-go food. I picked out their wine. I helped them figure out what food they wanted. And look. It was $84 and I got a $13 tip. And I was so nice to them.

Ira Glass

So that's just a little over 15%. Wow.

Troy Morris

And they were the most demanding and I spent the most time with them than anybody.

Ira Glass

But the biggest revelation of the night came when Troy retrieved the check from that guy who was sitting at the bar.

Troy Morris

I can't believe this. Look at this. OK, remember the guy who I said, I'm always nice to him but he always tips the minimal. He tipped 20%. I was mean to him for the first time. Look at-- can you believe that?

Ira Glass

Wow. He tips $5--

Troy Morris

Over 20%. Never. That's never happened. And it totally-- I can't believe it. That's hilarious. But that's really disturbing. I have to be mean to him now, more.

Ira Glass

By the end of the first night, it seemed pretty clear. Aloofness pays. But then when I came back a second night and hooked up a second waitress with a hidden wireless microphone, I got very different results. The second waitress, Callie Roach, was 23 with super-short hair. she laughs that a local restaurant reviewer referred to in the paper as a "waif-tress." And on her night, everyone tipped 20% or even a touch more. That was true of the regulars who she was aloof to. It was true of the man who Callie doted on who was taking his grown daughter out to dinner. It was true of the couple who Kelly joked around with about their difficult-to-open bottle of wine.

Woman

After the struggle--

Callie Roach

Yeah. I've got little hand-hickies. I'm like, geez, this--

Ira Glass

Even the other waitress working on Wednesday, Natalie, who does not have an aloof bone in her body, was getting 20% and more from every table. And the more I talked to Callie and Troy and Amy and the rest of the staff, the more everyone agreed. The majority of their customers are just set in their ways. They'll give whatever they always give in any restaurant like this to any server. Sure, you get a handful of customers like the guy Troy waited on at the bar, who you can nudge this way or that through force of personality, but it's just a few tables every shift. And that's all Troy and I were seeing that first night. This is Natalie.

Natalie

50% of the people will tip exactly the same, whether they get great service or-- they might tip a little less for lousy service, but most people, they tip what they're going to tip. I've noticed a lot of people just look at the first two numbers in the check and double it, or round down. There's a pattern. People tip the same. I think generally if you're not chatty and overly nice, you'll still get the same tip.

Ira Glass

Here's Callie.

Callie Roach

You can just tell that people are going to tip you at 18% because they got their food when they wanted it. And it doesn't matter how much you're giggling and inquisitive. Except Sundays. Sundays, I usually get tipped $4 or $5, every table. Doesn't matter what I do.

Ira Glass

Because of this, she says, she has a policy-- and she's only half-joking as she says this-- that she tries to limit the number of times that she smiles at customers or shows her approval to exactly two times. Two times. First time, when they place their order, she always tells them what a very fine choice they made, and then she smiles. And then at the end of the meal, she drops off the check and she smiles a second time, as if to say, you see? I do like you. If it's done wrong, she says, friendliness not only will not pay, friendliness can cost you.

Callie Roach

Because if you're nice and enjoying yourself, they don't need to make you feel any better. They already think you're having a good time. That's my theory, is if they already think you're having a good time, why are they going to tip you for having fun? You know? If you're doing it just to get through it, they know that you're working.

Ira Glass

Troy and Amy have also decided that niceness has its limits. For the first time in their years of waitressing, because of these discussions in the last two weeks, they have both stopped knocking themselves out running around for their most demanding tables. They're efficient. They're pleasant, but that's it. This is what they've learned. It's not that aloofness pays, it's that niceness doesn't pay.

Thanks to the owners of the Lula Cafe. That first waitress, Troy Morris, and one of the owners of the cafe, Lea Tshields, were in the band Tallulah. This song is from the band's album, Step Into the Stars. [MUSIC]

Coming up, if you seem so nice, why do I feel so bad? And more. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. And What's Going On With You?

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we bring choose some theme, and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, the allure of the mean friend. What is it about? We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, And What's Going On With You? We have this from Mike Albo.

Mike Albo

You're here early. Oh my God, do you have my scarf? Did you bring it? No, that's OK. No, it's just that I got it in India when I was there, and it's just this really beautiful thing, and I really treasure it. It's just really important to me. It's not like the cheaply-made Barneys CO-OP stuff that you buy. I don't mean "you buy," I mean "you buy." Oh, I wish you would have remembered. No, that's OK. You're so flaky.

Are you sick? You look sort of tired. Is there something wrong? Oh, you went out drinking last night? It's so great how you can still do that. You're so crazy. Did you throw up? Oh, no, I just mouth-threw-up for a second.

OK, so I didn't want you to hear this from someone else, but I just made $2 million. Yeah. So I'm pretty happy about it. My agent's pretty happy about it. It's just really lucky, because you know, like, with the recession, it's like I made my money before the apocalypse and now I'll able to live comfortably. It's just sort of locked in. And I can't tell you about the details of the deal, but if you could just do me a huge, huge favor and just don't mention it to anyone? I know you have sort of a problem being discreet.

Oh, order something? Oh, no. No. No, I'm not drinking anymore. Oh, no, go ahead. Have fun. I'm just not drinking anymore. I just realized there's a little bit more to life. But go ahead, have fun. You're so crazy.

So what's up with you? Oh, my God, when was the last time I saw you? I am totally hanging out with Tobey Maguire and Reese and Ryan and David Blaine. We jokingly call it the "Millionaire's Club." Oh, you know that children's book I wrote really fast for no reason? It's a Funny Sunny Day? Well, I just found out it's selling like crazy and can barely stay on the shelves. And I got another voiceover gig. It's weird, they just like my voice. I don't even have to leave home. I just call it in. Oh, no, it's-- I just sort of fell into it. You should try it. But it's really hard to get into. But you should try it.

You're looking for a place? Good luck. God, it's so hard to find a good place right now. This guy called me and begged me to take his beautiful 4,000-square-foot loft space. It's $300, but he's actually paying me to live there forever. So what's going on with you?

I think your body looks good. It's normal. It's a normal body. Really? Well, that's too bad. Well, I just feel like you need a little more confidence in yourself, you know? Like, I feel like I'm a direct person. I say what I feel. You're more-- you're more-- I don't know what you are. But I have to say I don't know how you do it. I'm so glad I'm not single. It looks so hard.

Yeah. Oh, yeah. I just ran into Carl. No, he looks good. He's good. He's good. Yeah, he says he hasn't talked to you. No. He seems like he's moving forward and you guys broke up and he's just sort of moving on with his life. He's in this really good relationship right now, and they just bought this huge beautiful place upstate and they're fixing it up together. We just had a really good time talking. And you know what? He's been working out. His body looks amazing. You know, when you and Carl were going out, I never really understood why you liked him. But now I totally do.

So nothing's going on with you? [LAUGHTER] No, I'm sorry. I'm just remembering a funny joke that Carl told me. No, I'm listening.

Ira Glass

An example from Mike Albo's short story, "The Underminer." Mike Albo also has a longer work, a book called The Underminer that he co-wrote with Virginia Heffernan.

Act Four. Keeping It In The Family.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Keeping It In the Family. Of course you can evade a mean friend. A mean relative, however, is forever. This next story is an excerpt from a much longer work by Bernard Cooper. This story follows Cooper's father as he eventually goes to a psychiatric hospital. But what happens in this part of the story takes place well before that. The actor Josh Hamilton read it for us.

Josh Hamilton

When I was 28 years old, my father sent me a bill for his paternal services. Typed on his law firm's onion-skin stationery, the bill itemized the money he'd spent on me over my lifetime. Since he hadn't kept tabs on the exact amounts he'd doled out over the years, expenditures were rounded off to the nearest dollar and labeled "Food," "Clothing," "Tuition," and "Incidentals." Beneath the tally, in the firm but detached language common to his profession, he demanded that I pay him back.

The total was somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million, an especially hefty sum in 1978. I remember being impressed by the amount. What an expensive life I'd lived. I was shocked and insulted too, of course, not only because my father had made such a calculation but because my life could be added up or reduced to a single figure. To see your existence in the form of a bill gives all your loves and fears and struggles, the cumulative tumult of being human, about as much poignancy as a check for a cup of coffee.

It read, "Your obligations to your father, the party of the first part, are considerable. And the only way to impress upon you, the party of the second part, the necessity of compensating him for the fiscal burdens he bore in your behalf is to make his sacrifices evident in the form of the following, recorded herein as a legal and binding document. Should you fail to make payment in full, this matter will result in actions for which I advise you to hire counsel." I double-checked his signature. It was his, all right. The letters rich with loops and convolutions.

Go ahead, I thought. Let him dun me. See if I pay. No parent in his right mind asks his child to reimburse him for that child's life. I didn't ask to be born, I thought melodramatically. Besides, had I known I'd be charged for my boyhood, I might have eaten fewer snacks, been easier on my shoes, more frugal with my allowance.

I couldn't help but dream up a doozy of a counterclaim, its itemizations even more preposterous than my father's. Chronic insecurity-- $90,000. Narcissistic wound-- $75,000. Oedipal complex-- $7,000.

Since, of course, these damages were psychological in nature, it was both difficult and whimsical to assign them a monetary value. But the punitive spirit of this counterclaim was gratifying, for awhile at least. Then the whole petty endeavor depressed me, and I thought, is this what we are to each other? A flurry of demands that can't be met? Hurts for which there's no restitution?

During the restless days and nights that followed, I couldn't settle on a convincing or comprehensible reason to explain why my father had sent me the bill, though I suspected the catalyst might have had something to do with his offer, a few months earlier, to buy me a new car. He'd made the offer on a day I'd come to visit him at his Spanish house in Hollywood, the house in which I'd grown up. As I pulled into the driveway, he was busy watering birds of paradise in his front yard, sturdy orange flowers that he'd cultivated, to his constant astonishment, from a bed of drab gravel.

Back then, I drove a Fiat whose paint had oxidized to the overall color and texture of rust. The car sputtered as I shifted into park and the sagging tailpipe, which I'd had to bind to the cars undercarriage with electrical tape, coughed a cloud of noxious exhaust. Just a year I'd purchased the car with money from a small inheritance left me by my mother, it fell apart with an almost vengeful rapidity. The vinyl upholstery of the bucket seats began to rub off on passengers' hands and thighs in sticky black patches. Soon the seats were nothing but lumps of raw foam, and even those were crumbling like sponge cake. One of the rear windows no longer rolled up, the pane trapped within the door. On cold nights, a stray dog made the back seat its home, leaving behind a legion of fleas to feast on my ankles as I drove around town.

It was humiliating to be seen inside the car, especially in Los Angeles. When idling at a stop light beside a purring sports car with rear stabilizers, anodized hubcaps, and a leather interior, I had to force myself to remember that an automobile does not a man make, and that I was a writer who placed a higher value on words than on material possessions, which is to say that I cultivated a hollow sense of superiority around new cars.

My father sauntered toward the Fiat as I got out, peeking through the perpetually open window despite my attempt to block his view. Stocky and balding, in a state of continual agitation, my father was also capable of a tenderness that seem to light him from within and that stirred me like daybreak stirs a bird.

"Hey," he said. "Look like you could use a new set of wheels."

"I can't afford a new car," I told him. I distinctly recall facing my father, his gardening clothes stained with grass and darkened by perspiration, and shaping my tone so that I sounded neither pitiful-- "I'm too poor"-- or petulant-- "I'll never be able to buy a new car."

Before I knew it, my father and I were ensconced in his white El Dorado, gliding with the frictionless speed of a dream toward a Toyota dealership in West Covina, whose ads he'd seen on TV. He pointed a stubby finger at his chest. "Let me handle this," he said. "I've bought plenty of cars in my life and I know how to deal with these bastards. You watch. I'll beat them at their own game. They won't know what hit them."

On one hand, Dad's braggadocio made me feel invincible, as though I were in the company of a seasoned pro. On the other hand, it relegated me to the role of admiring onlooker, and suggested that I was too incompetent and naive to buy my own car, which was entirely true. I floundered when it came to the treacherous etiquette of negotiating a major sale, a feat which required-- it seemed to me-- a keen mistrust of one's fellow men, coupled with a barely sublimated bloodlust. As far as I was concerned, getting gypped out of a few bucks was simply a built-in fee for avoiding confrontations with strangers.

I'd watched my father often enough to know that such transactions excited him into what can only be described as a rapture of antagonism. He didn't mind yelling threats and pounding desks and generally hurling himself bodily into the arena of commerce. Still, if a new car required me to be embarrassed by his aggression, bring on the blushing. And so I let myself relax into the plush bucket seat, cradled and safe as the Caddy whizzed past slower traffic, huge and unassailable, as regal as a motorized mansion.

As we walked across the asphalt lot of the Toyota dealership, triangular plastic pendants rippled and snapped in the breeze. I thanked Dad in advance and told him that I didn't need whitewalls, an air conditioner, or a radio. Basic transportation would be just fine. He nodded and forged ahead, his stride martial, his shoulders squared. Secretly, I hoped my modest expectations might endear me to him even more. Maybe he'd close the deal that very day before his mood changed, before I said something that would inadvertently set him off. Before he said "crap" or "bastard" to the dealer.

My excitement was indistinguishable from panic. I wanted a beautiful new Toyota more desperately with every step. I wanted an end to the self-consciousness I felt on the road, an end to the shameful sense that the thunderous rumbling and rank exhaust were coming from my person rather than my car.

The showroom felt bracingly cool after the heat of West Covina. Highlights glittered in the flawless paint jobs of the display models. In the center of the room, a sleek new convertible turned around and around on an enormous platform, as if swooning to the muzak. The second we entered, salespeople sensing prey rose from their desks and converged. It occurred to me that we would be the prize for the fastest walker, the one whose handshake or hail greeting reached us first. The victory was a skinny man whose snug black suit lent him an eel-like iridescence. Or perhaps I was just seeing him as my father might-- slippery, unctuous, not to be trusted.

Dad shifted his weight to meet the man's gaze, his posture erect. He kicked a tire as if to gauge, through his knowing toes, the vehicle's overall quality. He squinted at the sticker price. "John," said my father, reading the salesman's name tag. "Firstly, I'm an attorney. Secondly, when it comes to cars, I'm not some idiot off the street. A cousin of mine is fleet manager of a Cadillac dealership in San Bernardino." A complete fabrication, as far as I knew. "If we cut through the crap, you just might make yourself a sale. My son here-- I'm buying the boy a car-- doesn't need any bells or whistles."

"I'm Bernard," I said to the salesman.

He shook my hand without taking his eyes off my father. "Well, Mr--?"

"Cooper. Edward. Attorney at law."

"I've got to hand it to you, Mr. Cooper. It's nice to meet a customer who knows what he wants and comes prepared to do business. Makes my job a whole lot easier."

My father shot me a sidelong glance, as if to say, watch and learn.

"I'm going to make this painless," said the salesman. He spun on his heel and walked toward the glass door that led to the lot. We followed him outside to a veritable poppy fields of new Corollas, till we reached a red two-door that John claimed was the least expensive automobile on the lot.

"This is the cheapest?" asked my father. Though it pains me to do so, I must add that my father's gold Star of David had loosed itself from the mid-interior of his shirt to glint conspicuously in the afternoon light, the sight of which, given my father's unabashed haggling, caused a chord of shame to vibrate inside me. I felt compelled to explain to the salesman how my father had worked hard for everything he owned. He was a hoarder, a scrimper, a seeker of bargains who could never take his solvency for granted. And in this respect he was like thousands of people who'd grown up poor and endured the Depression, Jewish or not.

But that was a lot to explain to a salesman, especially on the cusp of a deal that would change my life. And to put it bluntly, if my father was conforming to the cliche of the cheap Jew, I was that cliche's beneficiary. I peered at the car, feigning disinterest, quite a performance considering how I coveted that little red Corolla.

"Mr. Cooper," said the salesman. "I know a shrewd man when I see one. And I'm going to do something that could put my job on the line. But before I tell you what it is, Mr. Cooper, I want you to promise that you won't say a word to my boss."

I'd once heard that repeating a person's name was a way to make them feel important, to win them over, and John it seemed had heard the same. "Mr. Cooper, I'm going to let you drive out of here for a mere $200 over the factory price. I'm going to scratch my commission on this. Frankly, I need the sales points more than I need the money, and if we can lock up this deal pronto, it'll be worth my while, and of course worth yours."

Here, metabolism obscures memory. My heart was running on all cylinders. My mouth went dry.

"You've got to be [BEEP] me, John," said my father. "I know you can give it to me under factory. I'm not paying a penny more than factory. Period."

"As I said, Mr. Cooper, I don't mind giving up my commission, but I can't lose money on the deal. I'm giving you the best price you're going to find in LA county, in the state of California."

Other customers were milling uncomfortably close to my Corolla, trying out driver's seats, adjusting rearview mirrors. I wanted to turn to my father and blurt, "Why would he lie?"

"I'm not buying it," my father said sternly. It took me a second to realize he met the dealer's story, not the car itself. "I know how this game is played, and I'll play along up to a point, but we've reached that point. So let's see what kind of deal you can give me."

"Shop around if you don't believe me, Mr. Cooper. Then come on back. The offer still stands. Better act quickly, though, because this baby isn't going to stay on the lot much longer."

"I guess you didn't hear me," said my father.

"Look at me, Mr. Cooper. I have no reason to lead you on."

My father gave John the once-over, then turned to me. "Let's go," he said. "We're taking our business elsewhere." Before we took a step, the salesman curtly thanked my father and walked away. The two of us waited a moment with the tacit understanding that his retreat might have been a strategy to provoke my father into giving chase. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky, asphalt softening beneath our feet.

"I think he's basically an honest man," I mumbled.

"Honest my ass." My father looked at me with something like pity. I'd never catch on. I would forever remain a sucker, a rube. Muzak faintly wafted from the showroom as the salesman swung the door open and walked inside. "Well," Dad announced. "Show's over." And we trudged across the lot toward his Caddy.

The drive back to Los Angeles took a good 40 minutes. My father still fumed from the encounter with the salesman, his ears and neck flushed with blood. Dad insisted that the deal was far from over. "The guy's playing hardball, but you watch. The phone will be ringing when we get back to the house. It'll be him, and he'll say--" My father launched into an imitation of John cooing, "Mr. Cooper this and Mr. Cooper that." My father promised that when the call finally came, John would apologize for being too hasty and lower the price. I'd have my car before I knew it.

One day passed. Two. Three. Each day, I called my father on various transparent pretexts and attempted to find out whether he'd heard anything from the salesman. On the fourth day, I steeled myself and asked him outright.

"Keep your pants on," grumbled my father. "I said he'd call, didn't I?"

By the end of the week, however, my pants were sagging. The car had probably been sold. In the meantime, I'd researched the prices at other Toyota dealerships around town and discovered that John's offer was the best of the bunch. And so I called my father in a last-ditch effort to own the car.

"Dad," I said. "I've done some comparative pricing."

"So?"

"I think we should go for the Corolla before it's sold. And if it's a matter of not wanting to pay more than the factory price-- and who can blame you?-- I'd be happy to contribute the extra $200 myself." The proposal had about it the pleasing hue of teamwork, and I wished I'd thought of it days ago.

"It's not about the $200," shouted my father. "It's a waiting game. He's holding out so I'll come running back and throw my money at him. If you can't sit tight for a while, if you have to have everything you want right when you want it, you might as well forget the whole damn thing." Before he hung up, he said, "And don't pester me anymore. I'll call you when the car is ready."

The bill arrived after a month of silence. By then I had given up on the car, resigned to drive the Fiat until it broke down completely, or until I could afford to make payments on a new car, whichever came first. I suspected my father might brood about our day at the dealership, but I wasn't prepared for the extremity of his reaction, if in fact the bill was a reaction. Whenever I tried to make a connection, the machinery of cause and effect began to break down. Perhaps in the intervening month, my father had become more offended by my offer to supplement the cost of the car, thinking I'd implied he couldn't afford it, couldn't pull off the deal on his own. Who was I, he must have wondered, to have offered him money?

And yet, even taking into account the full force of my father's volatility, it seemed unlikely that my offer of $200 would result in him suing me for $2 million.

As the days wore on, my longing for the car grew dimmer, while my father's, no doubt, deepened-- my plan should have worked, that car should be ours-- thrusting him back to the deprivation he knew as a boy. The salesman's refusal to call must have undermined his notion of how the world worked, how bargains were struck by men like himself, men possessed of wile and nerve.

What had happened, or failed to happen, defined his every paternal assurance, his promise that the phone would ring, the salesman buckle, the car become mine. How humiliated he must've been to know that I awaited his call. That he'd asked me to wait must have made it worse. My father's refusal to be in the wrong meant that I'd have to wait forever.

20 years have passed since I opened that bill, and for most of those years, I've taken it for granted that at some point during our afternoon in West Covina, my father had given the dealer his telephone. But I've sifted through that trip a dozen times, squinting against the glare of new cars, breathing the icy air of the showroom, and I can't recall my father handing over one of his business cards or filling out a form of any sort. Even if my father had been right after all, the salesman wouldn't have known where to reach him, what number to call.

Ira Glass

Josh Hamilton, reading an excerpt from a story by Bernard Cooper, which first appeared in the LA Weekly and is now part of the book The Bill From My Father.

Credits.

Ira Glass

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS] And an announcement now-- we have completely remade our website, top to bottom. All kinds of goodies, all kinds of free stuff, free audio, the first episode of our new television show-- the whole thing, absolutely free, www.thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. [FUNDING CREDITS] WBEZ management oversight provided by Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, whenever I send anybody over to record him, he says,

Joshua Carpatty

You know, you come here and you tape me for your stupid friend's radio show and then you get the hell out.

Ira Glass

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

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