Transcript

253:

The Middle of Nowhere
Transcript

Originally aired 12.05.2003

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

It took a week to get there. Sailing 200 miles a day. Captain Moore had never heard of anything like it, never seen anything like it. It was as far from land as you can get, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and there it was. Trash.

Charles Moore

The least visited part of the ocean is the most visited by our trash. Soap bottles are quite commonly seen out there. We've picked up Nike basketballs, truck tires from the Pacific Northwest with the steel rims still on them, and we discovered a spill that went for ten miles of plastic shopping bags. Out here again, as far away from land as you can get anywhere on earth, out in the middle of the ocean, we found El Pollo Loco chalupa bags, Taco Bell bags, Baby Superstore bags. For 10 miles until it got dark we tracked these bags.

Ira Glass

Some of the trash falls off of freighters and other ships. Most of it comes from land, carried by ocean currents, to an area the size of Texas where it collects in the middle of nothingness. There are five spots like this on the Earth's oceans. Captain Moore has seen a lot of trash heading towards one of these spots, a line stretching as far as the eye can see. Several yards wide.

Charles Moore

It was quite a shocker because we couldn't find the end of it. We sent a dinghy out going one way, and we took the boat going the other way, and we got so far apart we were scared of losing each other. And we still hadn't come to the end of it. And there's no agency, no funding agency, no government agency, that takes responsibility for that part of the ocean. And really there's no government that controls it.

Ira Glass

What that means is that Charles Moore, whose boat is a scientific research vessel, cannot find anybody to fund studies of what all this trash is doing to the creatures and the ecology of the ocean. Much less do something about all this garbage. You don't hear very often about places where nobody is in charge at all, where there's just nobody to appeal to.

Well today on our program, we bring you stories of places like that. Stories from the middle of nowhere. You're listening to This American Life from WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today, two stories from the middle of emptiness. Act one is about a tiny island where a lot of shady business has been going on precisely because there is no one around to see it. Act two is about a middle of nowhere experience much closer to home. An experience probably every single one of us has had at one point or another. We call that act, On Hold, No One Can Hear You Scream. Stay with us.

Act One. No Island Is An Island.

Ira Glass

Act one, No Island is an Island. The middle of nowhere figures heavily in conspiracy theories. You know, in a conspiracy theory you've got to have a remote place where the bad guys are going to congregate and plot. Bohemian Grove. Bretton Woods. The hollowed out volcano in Dr. No. Add to that list one more geographical spot in the middle of nothingness. According to Jack Hitt there is a lot going on there.

Jack Hitt

The middle of nowhere, it turns out, is at the center of everything. I don't mean that the way a zen master or a motivational speaker might. I mean it literally. The middle of nowhere is at the center of everything. Specifically, the middle of nowhere is an island, isolated even by Pacific Ocean standards, 1,200 miles from the nearest smudge of land. A third the size of Manhattan, way east of New Guinea. On a map, a tiny dot in a massive hole in the middle of the sea.

This place is called Nauru. Heard of it? Don't worry. Almost no one has. Nauru is the place you've never heard of until you've heard of it, and then can't stop hearing of it. Part of the pleasure of knowing about Nauru is watching it pop up, Zelig-like, at the strangest world events. A covert spy operation involving a fake embassy in China. The world premiere of a London musical. The dark back room scheming of global terrorism. A dramatic rescue on the high seas. And an incident of international bankruptcy, as Jonathan Winer discovered.

He remembers when he first heard of Nauru. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State at the time. What he was doing was trying to solve one of the great mysteries of the late 90s. How billions of dollars vanished from the former Soviet Union. Where he was at the time was Moscow, meeting with the vice president of Russia's central bank.

Jonathan Winer

I was sitting in his office, in the nice Scandinavian designed furniture offices of the central bank in Russia. Meeting with him to talk about the problem that the Russian central bank didn't have a clue what was happening to Russia's money. And he said, actually, we do have a clue. We know what's happening to the money. I said, what's happening to it? He said, Nauru. And I said, who's Nauru?

When I got back home, I got briefed by the CIA, I got briefed by the Treasury Department. Everyone thought it was very interesting that that's what had happened to Russia's money. We'd all been wondering what had happened to it. Now we had an explanation. It's really hard to assess quite how much of the Russian economy that was. The governor of the Central Bank estimated $70 billion over a relatively brief period of time.

Jack Hitt

How does a Pacific island liquidate a superpower? Well, for a while in the 90s, Nauru advertised on the internet permitting anyone to start a bank there for as little as $20,000. Make up a name, like the Panacea Bank. Actually, that one's taken. Quite notorious with the regulators.

Anyway, here was the advantage. Most banks are required to keep an audit trail of money coming in and going out, like a standard statement for a checking account. Nauru didn't burden its banks with such fussiness. Nor did Nauru require that they ever tell anyone just who ran the bank. So when investigators went to track illicit money flows and got to the Panacea Bank, there would be no record of where the money came from. The trail would vanish. And Nauru would be under no obligation to say who ran it or where they lived.

Banks that would hide your tracks for you have always been around, but it was more of a gentleman's sport practiced with old world grandeur in Switzerland. Nauru led the way in democratizing offshore banking, taking it to the internet, lowering the cost to make it easier on middle income international criminal syndicates.

Jonathan Winer

Collectively they've had a huge impact. When rain forest disappears, you wind up with extinctions. And when they launder money for people who are stealing a rain forest, you're facilitating a species extinction. Dictators make billions and hide it and then rape other countries again. So this kind of activity at a macro level has a huge impact all over the world. Welcome to the free market. No laws, no regulations. There you've got Nauru. The only thing that's forbidden there is disclosure.

Jack Hitt

Have you ever been there?

Jonathan Winer

No.

Jack Hitt

So when you say the word Nauru now, what image do you see in your mind?

Jonathan Winer

I see one of those Warner Bros. cartoon images of a desert island, with a single big palm tree on it. And I see a shack with a bunch computers on it, where somebody goes in and turns the power on in the shack. The lights go on, the computers start buzzing. There are little noises inside. There's a little fly paper on the wall as well as a fire alarm and a burglar alarm. And nobody is allowed to go inside. That's my image.

Now that's probably not fair. It's probably a much nicer place than that. But you know, I was a government bureaucrat, so I'm paid to have negative views of things.

Jack Hitt

I'm one of the few people on the planet who can tell you this, but he's pretty close. I've knocked on the door of that shack. The first time I ever heard of Nauru was when a magazine editor called up a few years ago and asked me go there. I stepped over to my kid's globe to find the place. It wasn't there.

So I traveled to Brisbane, Australia to catch the Nauru plane. I say the plane because Nauru Airways owns only one, a Boeing 737, all that connects this island to the world. I was told I was lucky to be aboard since the president often commandeers it to fly in party supplies, or sometimes creditors trying to collect on one of Nauru's many debts seize it right on the runway. On the flight out, half the plane was taken up with giant plastic containers customized to fit ceiling to floor in the passenger seats. See, almost everything, including fresh water, has to be imported.

I checked into the private hotel. There's only one. I caught the cab, there's only one of those too. And I went to the shack where, at that time, much of the world's money laundering occurred. It's a broken down building, basically two rooms. Crammed with air conditioners to keep the computers humming in Nauru's brutal heat. I knocked on the door and a woman with a broom appeared, who told me there was no one there and never would be. It was as close as I or anyone would ever get to the red hot center of it all. The cleaning lady of the new global economy. I've met her.

The next day though, I realized that Nauru was also at the center of a completely different story. I called the cab for an island tour. The driver this day, whose name sounded like Brian, took me on a slow tour around the outer edge of the island. Then he asked me if I wanted to see the interior, known as Topside. When I said I did, the mood in the cab noticeably darkened. But he turned off one of the few side roads, and we headed in. Right away the trees disappeared. I immediately saw that the palms and pandanas you see on the shore are kind of scrim. A curtain, hiding from sight one of the scariest things I've ever seen.

Almost all of Nauru is missing. Picked clean, right down to the coral skeletons supporting the island. It's a haunting landscape of dugout stone channels formed by limestone towers and coral outcroppings, all blindingly white under an intense equatorial sun. The winding channels among these coral spires are lined with an appallingly silky dirt, and old, filthy trash, too expensive to export from the island, blows around this blistering desert. Shreds of plastic bags snag on bits of coral, and feral dogs hunt in the canals.

Brian told me how when he was a boy, all this was dense tropical forest. We sat in a hissing silence for a while. There was no breeze, just fine talc, airborne and stagnant.

So what happened? To really understand, you have to go back a million years, to when Nauru was a young coral atoll. It served as a favorite bathroom break for exhausted sea birds. Even in pre-history, Nauru was the middle of nowhere. Eventually the guano was covered in topsoil, and then a tropical forest. Some 2,500 years ago, the first humans arrived. And the developing Nauruan people lived there for millennia without much outside interference. There were no mosquitoes, no disease. Temperate air year-round, so no need for clothes. They fished the shore, and hunted the noddy birds and terns. There was an abundance of fresh fruit and water. In short, it was the kind of paradise we all imagine where we hear the words Pacific island.

And it turns out, if you take an eon's worth of bird guano, and bake it in an equatorial sun, and compost it beneath a tropical forest, you'll have something valuable in about a million years. Say, by about 1896.

Carl Mcdaniel

In about 1896, a man named Henry Denson, who was working for something called the Pacific Islands Company, was on Nauru. And he picked up a rock that he thought looked like petrified wood.

Jack Hitt

This is Carl McDaniel, an ecologist with the Rensselaer Polytechnic. He says Denson worked for a company that was in the phosphate business in Sydney. He left Nauru and took his rock back with him, where he used it as a doorstop.

Carl Mcdaniel

And it ended up holding open the laboratory door to the phosphate testing facility for about three years. And then in 1900 a guy named Albert Ellis came on temporary assignment. And he was a chemist. And he came down to test the samples that were coming in from the islands, and he looked at that rock and he said, that looks like phosphate. And Henry Denson said to him, no, no. It's just petrified wood, I picked it up on Nauru. Well for about three months, Albert Ellis walked in and out of that laboratory, and finally curiosity just took him over. He was like, I've got to test it. He chipped off a piece and it was the richest phosphate ore ever assayed at that time.

Jack Hitt

This discovery plunged Nauru into the Industrial Age in the most brutal way. It became a strip mine, with a succession of different owners. First Germany, then Japan during World War II, and then Australia until the late '60s when colonialism went out of fashion. Nauru became an independent nation in 1968 and took control of the mines. The money poured in. By the late '80s, Nauru was the richest country per capita in the world. And they luxuriated in it. Everyone bought a car, even though the drive around the entire perimeter of the nation can't last much more than 30 minutes. They built cinder block houses, the hotel went up. Everyone got satellite TV, Western food arrived. Nauru Airline started flying. And in the final sign of post-colonial arrival, they built a golf course in the middle of nowhere.

And just like for everyone else in the '90s, the bubble burst. Nauru's financial advisers in the west robbed them blind. One of them, Adrian Powles of London, looted $60 million. Another boondoggle was producing a play in London. Maybe you missed the musical based on the amorous adventures of da Vinci, called Leonardo, A Portrait of Love.

[MUSIC - LEONARDO, A PORTRAIT OF LOVE]

It closed a few weeks after it opened, losing tens of millions of dollars for its principal backer, Nauru. By the late '90s, the country was in ruins. With the money gone, it was easier to turn around and see what they'd done to their homeland.

Carl Mcdaniel

Probably 70% of the island is mined out ruins. You can't walk through it, it's of no use to you. So the people on this island are in big trouble. They can no longer really get from the island those life support functions one needs in order to live somewhere.

Jack Hitt

When you're on Nauru, there's a palpable sense of shame at what they've done. Bring up the mining with anyone, a hotel clerk, a cab driver, a postal worker, and their face goes tense. It's hard to understand because the Nauruans have done something almost unparalleled. Imagine if France had paved Bordeaux, or if Japan had carted away Fujiyama by the truckload. The Nauruans literally sold off their homeland for a pot of wealth, which is now lost.

There are probably rationalizations and explanations, and plenty of others to blame. And yet, it's an incomprehensible thing to see it and feel it. And once they've done it, they had to find something else to sell. Most recently, suspected terrorists have been arrested carrying Nauru passports, which it appears can be easily obtained for something around $15,000 to $30,000.

A few years ago, they began marketing their very isolation. And the world learned of it in the usual way. When Nauru's name popped up in the middle of a story that should have nothing to do with the place. Like this story, of a Norwegian cargo ship in a standoff with the Australian coast guard.

News Anchor

Australian commandos armed with automatic weapons headed out to stop the Norwegian ship from docking at an Australian port. On board, 434 Afghan, Sri Lankan, and Pakistani refugees, including 43 children and four pregnant women, all living in sweltering heat on deck.

Jack Hitt

That's ABC News. The story is about a boatload of refugees, mostly Afghans fleeing the Taliban. Their wooden ship was sinking in the waters off Australia, and the Aussies flew helicopters out over them for three days, taking no action until they spotted a Norwegian cargo vessel nearby. The Australians then radioed the captain, told him of the SOS situation, and advised him to take the wreckage to Indonesia. The Norwegian captain hurried to the sinking boat and pulled over 400 refugees onto his cargo ship, ill equipped to handle such a crowd. Obviously, he had to take immediate action, heading for the closest port that could handle them. Australia. But Australia didn't want these people, so for days there was a standoff at sea until Australia came up with a solution.

News Anchor

Now the plan is to take them another 3,000 miles to Papua, New Guinea, where one group will be flown to New Zealand and a larger one to the desolate Pacific island of Nauru.

Jack Hitt

What the Norwegian captain didn't know was that he had sailed right into the middle of an ugly national election. Australian Prime Minister John Howard was down in the polls and seemed destined to lose. Then he stood his ground regarding the refugees. He declared, "We will decide who comes into this country." After he ordered his Navy to board the Norwegian vessel and remove the refugees to Nauru, his ratings shot right up and he easily won reelection. In exchange for locating the refugees on this distant island, he agreed to pay the Nauruan government a first installment of $20 million, with more to come. Australian senator Andrew Bartlett was one of the few politicians to oppose Howard's deal. A deal the prime minister liked to call, the Pacific Solution.

Andrew Bartlett

Well, it certainly strikes me as a bit sinister. It's a bit like the final solution. And also, it's like any sort of policy that basically means getting rid of people and sending them back somewhere else where they're not our problem anymore. Calling that a solution, again, I think is pretty sinister.

Jack Hitt

You won't be hearing from the refugees. Since they landed on the island in September 2001, Nauru has closed its borders. No tourists or journalists are allowed. The refugees cannot receive visitors. And Australia has picked up other refugees on the water and sent them into the camps, including Iraqis escaping Saddam Hussein.

Today of the roughly 400 detainees, mostly men, about a hundred are children, half are from Iraq, half from Afghanistan. These people fleeing the Taliban, escaping Saddam Hussein, are technically our allies. Yet they live in conditions not much different than our sworn enemies housed at Guantanamo. They are not permitted to mingle with the Nauruans. They don't work, but sit all day in concentration camps.

From the start, the authorities recognized that the detainees were becoming lethargic and morose. So they hired Maarten Dormaar, a Dutch psychiatrist, who came to Nauru. He was hampered by the fact that rural people from Afghanistan and Iraq don't have a rich tradition of talk therapy, or opening up to a grief counselor. So their anxiety manifested itself in physical ways.

Maarten Dormaar

There was a boy who only came to me because of his stuttering. He said, I can't speak anymore, properly. And the more emotionally loaded my questions were, then he started to stutter. As soon as he had to pronounce a word like brother or father, he couldn't go on talking. It was clearly an emotional reaction, a reaction to his being overloaded with, how do you call, [DUTCH WORD] how do you call that in English? Longing for, hey, he was a young boy. Longing to see his mother, longing to be comforted, longing to have an arm around his shoulders. And there he is, all alone, in a long house with people that he cannot trust and he cannot confide in. It's very understandable.

Most of them didn't sleep. That is their main complaint. They didn't sleep till 4:00 or so. And then they said, did you sleep afterwards. No, I didn't sleep, I just rested a little. Pain in their back, in their head. I mean, they always want sleeping pills and pills for headache. Fear of dying. Feeling of fainting. And so the feeling that you can't breathe anymore. Self mutilation, with a knife over the chest and over the arms and so on, a lot of blood. This happened at least a dozen of times.

Jack Hitt

Dormaar tried to convince the authorities that none of the detainees had any mental illness. Simply put, they are being driven crazy. The cure was simple. Freedom, work, friends, life. All things he was powerless to provide. So he became quietly enraged. Struggling to figure out what to do, Dormaar clandestinely began to shoot videos of some of these young men. Dormaar gave them to a friend to smuggle off the island, and he retrieved them once he got out.

I have seen the videotapes. The men all speak in the same flat affect of people who no longer have exterior lives, but dwell entirely inside their own heads. One Afghan recalls the official visit by Australia's immigration chief, Phillip Ruddock, the man who rules their lives. When Ruddock arrived, all the camps' children and women were in their best clothes. They carried flowers, hundreds stood in formation to greet him. Ruddock entered, walked across the entire room to confer with the Nauruan officials, and didn't once acknowledge the detainees. He wouldn't even look at us, said the Afghan.

On another tape, Dormaar has smuggled an Iraqi named Mohammed out to the beach for an interview. At one point, Dormaar quotes Ruddock, insisting the detainees all have options. Here's Mohammed's answer.

Mohammed

I want to say that, where's the options?

Jack Hitt

I want to say, where's the options?

Mohammed

I cannot see any options, just the sky and the water.

Jack Hitt

I cannot see any options, just the sky and water.

Mohammed

I feel that I am completely powerless.

Jack Hitt

I feel that I'm completely powerless. As he speaks, we see Mohammed sitting politely on a large rock in the sand. As he talks about his options, he looks off as though he sees something. The camera instinctively follows his gaze, and then we see it too. The actual reason Mohammed is on Nauru. A thousand miles of ocean, extending to the horizon, utterly still and empty. A painted sea without so much as a painted bird. The middle of nowhere.

Andrew Bartlett

I've been wrestling with that question of why is it that people allow this to happen and support it happening.

Jack Hitt

Australian senator Andrew Bartlett.

Andrew Bartlett

I guess the closest I can come to understanding why it is, they don'y have to deal with it face to face. They don't actually have to see the people, they don't have to see what conditions they're in. The big reason for putting people on Nauru, because it's obviously incredibly expensive and there's no legal reason there why they need to put them on Nauru as opposed to Australian territory, is that they're so far away, they're inaccessible. They're just seen as a faceless group of people, a long way away.

Jack Hitt

The detainees are still marooned on Nauru. Nauru continues to collect millions of dollars from the Australian government to house them. In a sense, Nauru is a lot like some isolated Appalachian town. First they strip mine themselves into ruin, then they build a prison to boost the local economy. What's left, other than a complete federal bailout by the United States government? Exactly. It arrived this summer. The details were dug out and reported by an Australian journalist, Cameron Stewart, of the Weekend Australian.

Cameron Stewart

The first inkling that we had that Nauru had discovered a way to find new revenue sources through the US came to us when we got a bunch of documents, basically landing on a desk in our newspaper. And we're quite used to the sort of colorful stories that Nauru seems to throw up. So we waded through these papers and we suddenly saw documents, which contained some extraordinary information. Even by Nauruan standards.

Jack Hitt

The paperwork, including emails, personal correspondence, and memos on state department stationery, detailed a quid pro quo between Washington and Nauru. Washington offered to return Nauru to paradise with fisheries, health clinics, schools, desalination plants, the works. In return, Nauru had to stop its banking and passport business, set up a listening post for US intelligence agencies, and sign Article 98, exempting the US from all war criminal proceedings in the international courts. Standard stuff requested by the Bush administration these days. Oh, and there was one other thing. Nauru had to go on a secret mission.

Cameron Stewart

The way it was described to the Nauruans was this. The US wanted to use Nauruan diplomatic facilities in China to help facilitate the safe defection to the west of senior North Korean military and scientific personnel. Nauru would set up an embassy in China, and it would also set up an embassy car. And the car would be used, with a Nauruan flag, to help move people around the country. And the embassy would be used as a possible safe house to hold a defector until they could be safely moved to the West. The operation, they describe as Operation Weasel.

Jack Hitt

That's what he said. Operation Weasel. And according to Stuart, it got pretty far along. America had even manufactured Nauruan flags for use in China. The Chinese for their part, were a little suspicious, and never accredited the Nauruan embassy since it was staffed entirely by Westerners and run by a New Zealand spy. The deal back in Washington had been brokered by three government insiders. A congressional staffer on the House Financial Services Committee, a former Reagan official, and an American who also briefly ran the Nauruan embassy in Washington. As with so much of our foreign policy these days, the negotiations with Nauru were blunt. This email, which Stewart uncovered, explains the deal with a lot of moral clarity.

Cameron Stewart

The background of this is that he didn't believe the Nauruans were taking the whole thing seriously enough. In other words, they weren't jumping to attention quickly enough. And he emails, and he says, if anyone wants to play effing games I'll end it all right now by making three phone calls. And that [BLEEP] hole in the middle of the Pacific will be left high and dry by everyone concerned.

Jack Hitt

Nauru went for the deal, though. After two high level meetings, including a visit to Washington by the Nauruan president Bernard Dowiyogo, the arrangements were made. And not a minute too soon.

Cameron Stewart

President Dowiyogo's health went downhill quite seriously. And within about 10 days, he was dead. He had died, and really, his last act was to sign this presidential order agreeing to the list of US requests. Basically, the US government got everything it wanted, and Colin Powell wrote a letter to the Nauruan government shortly afterwards saying that Bernard Dowiyogo was a hero for Nauru. He'd secured the future of the country and he was a bold man of vision, he opposed terrorism, et cetera, et cetera. And so Nauru felt that they had done everything that was requested of them.

Jack Hitt

But when the state department was asked publicly about aid to Nauru, they not only denied the deal, but insisted that the men who made the arrangements with Nauru had no official authority. Meanwhile, understand, the Nauruans had held up their side of the deal. They outlawed offshore banking, which had cut off a big part of their income. So Nauru took the United States to court in Australia. Papers have been filed. Nauru is talking. In late summer, the court made its first ruling.

Cameron Stewart

Now the court, in its summary judgment, found in favor of Nauru. And the judge, Justice Bill Gillard, said that various persons were named by Nauru as persons representing the US. It is open on the evidence to infer that these men were acting on the high executive authority from the US government. In other words, the Victorian Supreme Court found that the US used back channel diplomacy to bring Nauru in from the cold on terrorism, and was therefore liable for promises made in that process.

Jack Hitt

No matter what happens, it's hard to see this as a win for Nauru. It's a desperate act, even for a country so intimate with desperation. You know you're really running out of options when you're dunning the CIA for money owed on failed covert ops.

After I returned from my trip to Nauru, I was invited to have breakfast with the man who was president then, as he was earlier this year. Bernard Doriyogo greeted me with courtly dignity in his Park Avenue hotel suite, and soon chefs brought us eggs and toast. I asked him what new economies he imagined for Nauru. He said that since all the phosphate would be gone in only a few years, he was considering new proposals.

He said that he was looking into a new technology that would allow him to cut the limestone pinnacles from Nauru's interior into flat slabs. Then he would polish them and sell them as ancient coral coffee tables in America. I asked President Doriyogo what other ideas he had. He looked at me blankly, and then he took a bite of toast.

How often you get to watch a country die? For a modern nation state, however small, to furl its flag, push in its UN chair and turn off the lights, is unthinkable. But for Nauru, it's not only thinkable, but likely. The ocean's waters are rising. If predictions are true, in a half century the sickly ring of green habitation at the water's edge in Nauru will be engulfed. The Nauruans will have to decamp for some other place.

Australia has in fact offered Nauru one of its islands, off the Great Barrier Reef. If and when they ever take up such a solution, that will leave only the bleached lunar landscape of Topside, peeping above the water's surface, available once again, for the next million years, only to the birds.

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt is one of our contributing editors. He lives in New Haven. Since we first aired that story in 2003, the number of detainees on Nauru is now down to 89 people according to Human Rights Watch.

Coming up, the second largest long distance company in the country exiles a person to limbo for nearly a year. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. On Hold, No One Can Hear You Scream.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, tales from the middle of nowhere. Stories of people trapped in some distant spot where all rules are off. We've arrived at act two of our program. Act two, On Hold, No One Can Hear You Scream.

Back in 2003, one of the people who works on our radio show, Julie Snyder, our senior producer, fell into a 10-month-- black hole-- would be the best thing to call it. For 10 months she fought with the phone company, getting put on hold for hours at a time, trapped on hold in the middle of wherever it is that you are when you're on hold. There was nobody who she could turn to to stop the madness. Nobody seemed able to help her. You've gone through this, right? We've all gone through this kind of thing. And for most of us, it's over in just a couple phone calls.

Julie's vigil began in March 2003. She got this phone bill with $439 in long distance calls. One 23 minute call with her mom cost $43. Under her MCI plan-- this is back when MCI existed-- under her MCI plan it should have cost her $0.12 a minute, just under $3.00. So she called, to try to get them to fix the problem.

Julie Snyder

They told me that on December 31st, I had called and requested that they drop me from my $0.12 cents a minute plan.

Ira Glass

And had you called on December 31st?

Julie Snyder

Yeah, I do do a lot of my business on New Year's Eve. No, of course I didn't call. Are they even open on New Year's Eve Day? It is so ridiculous. But I also told them a lie, and I don't know what you want to do with this one. If this would be-- just so we wouldn't have to haggle over the whole did you call, we have it down that you called, and no I didn't call and stuff. I just told them that it would have been impossible for me to call because I was in the hospital then.

Ira Glass

In the hospital with what?

Julie Snyder

Giving birth.

I just didn't want to haggle over it. And I knew for sure that I hadn't called and I hadn't authorized anything. So I just figured it would just make it easier. They weren't going to argue anyway. Because I get the impression that this is what people call about all the time. This happens to everybody. You get, all of a sudden, just switched without your knowledge. This is the most common way to get screwed over by your phone company.

Ira Glass

Over the course of two months, the phone company piled on a total of $946 in mistaken charges onto her bill. And for a while it seemed like the kind of thing that could be easily resolved. Sure, it took few phone calls. Her local service was with Verizon and long distance service was with MCI so it took a bit of wrangling to get them both on the same page. But after two rounds of calling, customer reps from both companies told her, yes, it's solved, in a three way conference call. This was April. Julie felt good.

Then in June, she got a notice from a collection agency asking for the money. And this is where she pretty much made the transition from normal customer with a problem to someone lost at the bottom of a well.

Julie Snyder

So I called Verizon, and I say that I want to do a three way call again because clearly, they told me that this thing was being taken care of and it wasn't. They told me that I would have to call MCI because they can't initiate a three way call, that they simply don't have the technology to initiate a three way call.

Ira Glass

Wait, you mean literally they can't get two people on the phone at the same time and conference them?

Julie Snyder

Apparently no, no. They can't do that. It's impossible for them.

Ira Glass

They're a phone company, though. They sell that service. OK. So you call MCI.

Julie Snyder

So then I called MCI and this is when I started losing it. Because this was the first time I cried.

Ira Glass

Wow. The phone company made you cry.

Julie Snyder

This was the first time I cried.

Ira Glass

How?

Julie Snyder

Well, because they said when I called-- then I finally called them and I got a hold of this customer service person, and then they told me that there wasn't any record of a credit issued at all for me for $946.36. And if you just ignore this, this is going off to a collection agency. And this is ruining your credit, right. So I just felt totally frustrated.

And it's at that point that I just started freaking out, and just saying, you guys don't know what you're doing, and people have already told me I think two or three times that this has already been taken care of, and everything's fine, and stuff like that. And so finally then they transfer me to-- this is my first time being taken over to priority customer service-- and I get to priority customer service, and that's when I met Chuck Carter.

Ira Glass

And Who's Chuck Carter?

Julie Snyder

Chuck Carter was like, the nicest man at MCI. OK, so I completely started crying when I got on the phone with him. And I was just like, you don't have any idea how frustrating this is, and I've been on the phone, and they're going to report me. And this guy, he works at MCI in priority customer service, but he also works at the suicide prevention hotline. Because he totally talked me through it in such a nice way. So calming and so social work-y. And like, was just, breathe, breathe.

Ira Glass

No. He says, literally, breathe?

Julie Snyder

Yeah, he did, breathe. And then he was just like, you know what Miss Snyder? I know that this is frustrating for you. I know that this makes you feel powerless. And I know that you feel out of control. And I know that it's hard to ask us, to put all your faith in us that we're going to take care of this. But I'm going to take care of this for you.

It was so cheesy and so bizarre that it got me to stop crying, at least, because I was so confused by what was happening on the phone. But it also totally calmed me down. And he told me that now he was going to fill out the correct paperwork to get the credit issued. And that he was getting the manual form, and the digital form was the one that got lost before, but he was going to get the manual form.

And even when he had to go get the manual form, he was all just like, now Miss Snyder, I'm just going to get up from my desk, walk down the hall, and get the manual form. And then come back. This shouldn't take me longer than 30, 45 seconds. OK? So I'm not forgetting you, I'm just getting up to go to the manual form.

Ira Glass

And is there a part of you which feels, don't condescend to me, or are you just eating it up?

Julie Snyder

I was kind of eating it up. I was really enjoying it. I felt like I was really being taken care of, and I felt like finally somebody understood my pain. And then he also gave me his name. And he said now, I want you to know my name, my name is Chuck Carter. I work in MCI priority customer service. If there's a problem you can come back to me. So I felt pretty good after this phone call.

So then a week later, I call, and again they say that they don't know what I'm talking about. And that they can't find any request made for this credit, and they don't know what a manual form is. And then when I just begged, Chuck Carter, just Chuck Carter. Let me speak with Chuck Carter. They told me that they have no idea who Chuck Carter is, and they said that there are no individual extensions at the entire phone company. Nobody has an individual extension. At the phone company.

Ira Glass

But how could they run a business where they can't call their own employees one by one? Like, how does Chuck Carter's wife reach him to say, pick up some milk on the way home?

Julie Snyder

That's what I said, you know. And I was just like, I understand that you don't want to give me the number because you don't want me directly harassing your customer service representatives. And that's totally personal. I completely understand that, right. But why can't they call and get this person on the phone and try and figure out what's going on? And then they just told me it was impossible to do. And then I was just like, well, why would the guy have given me his name in the first place then if this wasn't possible to do? And they just said, I don't know, I don't know, maybe he was just trying to make you feel better.

Ira Glass

OK, so this goes on for weeks and weeks.

Julie Snyder

This goes on for weeks, and finally I end up talking with a manager at MCI. And she tells me that I would have to file a complaint with the MCI complaints division. And so I said, OK, so can I get their phone number? And they don't have a phone number. They just have a fax number. You can only fax them, you can't call them. And that they're somewhere in Iowa. And I said, what if they can't figure out what's wrong? And she said, they'll definitely figure out what's wrong. And then I said, and how soon are they supposed to get back to you? And she said within two weeks.

Understand that, for like the last seven months, I've had people saying I'm going to call you next week, or I'll call you within two weeks, or I'll let you know. And I've never once gotten one phone call back from anybody at MCI, or a letter, or anything explaining what's going on. So I'm a little wary when they say that they'll get back with you within two weeks. And so I said, well, yeah, but what if they don't? And she was like, they do. They will. They always do. They always figure everything out and they always get back with you within two weeks.

Ira Glass

And so somewhere there's an office, they're saying, that there's an office where there's only a fax machine.

Julie Snyder

Like a silo, is how I like to picture it. Somewhere in the middle of Iowa there is this silo. I was just like, so, wait. So you're telling me that there's some building in the middle of Iowa that's filled with like, really prompt geniuses, who don't have any phones but just have one fax machine sitting in the middle of the room that gets incoming faxes. And they know everything and they'll take care of it, and she told me, yes. That's basically what it is.

Ira Glass

What is this employee's name? Let's say her name over the radio.

Julie Snyder

That was Melanie Gladwell.

Ira Glass

Do you hate what this has reduced you to?

Julie Snyder

Yeah. I mean, I hate that it's made me sort of a screeching shrew on the phone. And I hate that it makes me angry and wishing revenge upon them. And you know, I'm the person that they sort of, just like, "Jesus" when they get off the phone. You know what I mean? And yeah, I hate all of that.

I don't know what to do.

Ira Glass

Really?

Julie Snyder

No, I really don't know what to do.

Ira Glass

And so right now you're just waiting to hear from the geniuses in the silo?

Julie Snyder

Mhmm. I've been waiting for a week and a half, so I still technically have three days left that the geniuses could get back in touch.

Ira Glass

So, Julie, now, weeks have passed since that first conversation. The one that we just heard.

Julie Snyder

Yes, weeks.

Ira Glass

And so you've had time to hear from the geniuses in the silo. What's the word?

Julie Snyder

Silence.

Ira Glass

So who are we calling today?

Julie Snyder

We're calling MCI today to find out if they know what's been going on.

Ira Glass

All right. Well, let's go to it. Let me just say, before we place this call, Julie?

Julie Snyder

Yes?

Ira Glass

You're in luck because you're about to see the power of the national media. The power that public radio has in this country. We're going to place this call, we're going to say who we are, we're going to indicate that they're on the record. And doors are going to open. Your problems will be solved.

Julie Snyder

I truly believe that. I think that you're going to solve this problem.

Ira Glass

Are you being serious or are you being sarcastic?

Julie Snyder

Actually, I don't even know what I believe. I think at first I thought that this was a really good idea. But I don't know. Honestly, over the last couple weeks in going through more and more of this, I actually don't even think you're going to be able to do anything.

Ira Glass

All right, well, let's find out.

Julie Snyder

OK.

[DIAL TONE AND DIALING]

Ira Glass

So we call. And some automated system picks up, asks us to punch in some answers to a few questions. Which takes over two minutes. And then, we get a customer service rep.

Ferdie

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] built by MCI, my name is Ferdie, what can I assist you with today?

Ira Glass

I'm sorry, you said Ferdie?

Ferdie

Yes sir.

Ira Glass

Hi, my name is Ira Glass, and I'm recording this for possible national radio broadcast, I work on a national radio show. One of my coworkers, her name is Julie Snyder, has an ongoing problem with her bill. Julie?

Julie Snyder

Yeah, hi. I was calling-- should I give you the account number?

Ferdie

Miss Julie, all right? And Miss Julie, may I also have your telephone number starting with area code, please?

Julie Snyder

OK, the telephone number is 718-4848 but that's actually--

Ira Glass

After she gives some basic information, Miss Julie asks if we can get bumped up to priority customer service. And then we sit on hold.

Julie I talk about the music on hold. Julie has noticed that this song has no beginning and no ending. Because probably, if you hear it end and then start up again, it would just make you aware of how much time had gone by. Which would make you sad. Or mad. We talk about what Ferdie is doing right now. We talk about work. Minutes pass.

Julie Snyder

Oh god. Now what do you want to do?

Ira Glass

I don't know.

And then, after twelve and a half minutes.

Ferdie

Yes, ma'am, thank you very much for holding. I have now Miss Christian on the other line.

Christian King

Hi Julie.

Ferdie

She's from our priority customer support, and Miss Christian will be assisting you further with regards to your concern for today ma'am. OK?

Julie Snyder

OK, thank you.

Ferdie

Have a good day, it's up to you Miss Christian.

Christian King

OK, thank you so much.

Ira Glass

Hi. And I should tell you, we told Ferdie this, we're recording this for possible national radio broadcast on public radio--

Christian King

OK, at this time you don't have our permission to record this, OK?

Ira Glass

Why not?

Christian King

Because I don't know why you're calling, first of all. Second, you don't have our permission to record this, so I just need to ask that you stop recording the call or else I will have to disconnect and call you back.

Ira Glass

OK. I will stop recording the call.

Julie tells this woman, Christian King, the history of her case. This takes half an hour. Christian is from the corporate PR office, and she tells us that she can get this solved. She says that somebody's going to call us back tonight or tomorrow, that under no circumstances should we call the regular customer service center. That it was just wrong for us to call up and record like that. We got off the phone, and then we turned back on our tape recorder.

Ira Glass

So what do you think?

Julie Snyder

I mean, I think it's such a crappy system. I think it's such a crappy system that now they're all like, you know, we're on the case and we're going to take care of it and stuff. You know, but don't call here, and say that they're on the air, and don't call and say that you're a journalist and doing a story about that, because that just is rude. But that's the only way that I got through to these people. That's the only way that I got this woman to respond to us. It just makes me so angry.

Ira Glass

It takes a week and a day, and then a letter arrives by Fedex for Julie, resolving the entire thing. Crediting her account, fixing the mistake. It's done. A few weeks after that, after I do a fair amount of pleading on the phone with MCI, they finally agreed to let us interview somebody in the company. Not Chuck Carter, who I begged for, but instead the senior vice president who runs customer service for MCI. A guy named Jim Myers, who actually started at the bottom handling customer calls himself, and who turns out to be the ideal possible spokesman for MCI. Honestly, sometimes we wondered if they actually just manufactured him in a laboratory somewhere.

Jim Myers

Hi, good morning, it's Jim Myers.

Ira Glass

Hi Jim Myers.

Jim Myers

Hi Julie, I promise I'm not your enemy. Although after reading the dialogue that has transpired with your account, I'm not-- words can't even describe how you must feel.

Julie Snyder

Oh, that's so nice of you to say.

Jim Myers

And I acknowledge and recognize that we owe you an apology.

Julie Snyder

Oh that's very nice of you to say, thank you.

Ira Glass

That's right. He had us at hello. And then he cheerfully answered all of our questions. Yes, it is true, he said. MCI customer care representatives do not have their own individual phone extensions. Yes, it is true, he said, MCI understands that there have been weaknesses in its customer care, and that's why they've been investing millions of dollars in new training. And why MCI has gone on kind of a hiring binge. The number of customer care operators has increased by a third in just one year. It's now 5,300 people at over 15 locations, under Jim's direction.

They've even been testing a system that would solve one of the biggest problems Julie had with MCI. That whenever somebody figured out what was going on with her account, she could never talk to them again.

Jim Myers

It will remember who you spoke to the last time, and it will offer that up to you as a customer or consumer calling in. So what would happen is, Julie, the next time you would call customer service it would say, the last time that you called MCI you spoke to Ira Glass. Ira will be available in about five minutes. If you'd like to speak to Ira, press or say one. Or otherwise, press two and you can talk to the next representative in 30 seconds or whatever the hold time is.

Ira Glass

Now one of the things that we need you to respond to is this. Over the course of her calls Julie talked to a service representative named Melanie Gladwell, who told her that she had to contact the complaints division in Iowa. And she said that they don't have a phone number. That she couldn't call the complaints division to straighten out the problem. They only have a fax machine. Do you have a complaint office in Iowa City that doesn't have any telephones, but only a fax machine?

Jim Myers

Well, I wouldn't call it the complaint office. It's the executive escalation office. And they do take phone calls. I'm not sure why that would have been said by Melanie.

Julie Snyder

Oh, they do take phone calls.

Jim Myers

Yeah. We're a phone company. We should be able to get a phone number for you to just about any department.

Julie Snyder

That's what I wondered.

Jim Myers

Was Melanie new by chance?

Ira Glass

No, Melanie was a supervisor.

Julie Snyder

Yeah, she was priority customer service.

Jim Myers

OK. I'll definitely look into that, because it doesn't sound exactly the way things should be.

Julie Snyder

She hated me, though.

Jim Myers

She did not.

Julie Snyder

She did.

Jim Myers

I can't believe that's possible on anyone here. Now, Julie of all people, my goodness, I can't believe you're even talking with us after this. But we're certainly glad that you are.

Julie Snyder

I really appreciate you talking with us today. And I really appreciate the fact that I did get the credit. But I have to say that one of the frustrations is that I feel like, if we hadn't called as the radio show, I think I would still be fighting this. I don't think it would be resolved. I think the only way it got resolved was simply because we're a national radio show, and we're just sort of threatening embarrassment.

Jim Myers

Wow. That's actually somewhat disappointing. And I will tell you at some point, I hope you come back and do business with us. And I think you'll see that the tone and the spirit and the delivery of our service is significantly better.

Julie Snyder

Thank you.

Jim Myers

And Julie, I promise, we will treat you like a princess. Maybe I should go out on our VRU and our response and just put my email. And say, look, if your issue's not resolved to your satisfaction, send me an email. Maybe there's an opportunity to go one step more.

Julie Snyder

I'm sorry, are you saying that you want us to--

Jim Myers

Sure--

Julie Snyder

--broadcast your email address?

Jim Myers

Sure, why not?

Julie Snyder

OK.

Ira Glass

All right, what's your email address?

Jim Myers

Jim.myers@mci.com

Ira Glass

All right, all you MCI customers. You heard it. Let's give that one more time, the email address.

Jim Myers

It's Jim.myers--

Ira Glass

M-Y-E-R?

Jim Myers

M-Y-E-R-S at mci.com.

Ira Glass

OK.

Jim Myers

Julie, I have your number. I'm going to do something for you. But I'll take it off line.

Julie Snyder

Oh.

Ira Glass

No, here we are. Do you want to say?

Jim Myers

No, no. I'm going to look through this record. And, you know, I can't pay Julie for her time and whatever. You know. I tend to write people letters and do special things. Just let them-- you know, I'm not going to write on the chalk board a thousand times, I'm sorry for what we did, but I'll do something special for you.

Julie Snyder

Well, I would appreciate anything. Thank you so much.

Jim Myers

We'll do a little something nice for you.

Julie Snyder

OK.

Jim Myers

OK. All right.

Julie Snyder

Thanks so much.

Jim Myers

All right, bye.

Julie Snyder

Wow.

Ira Glass

Are we being suckers?

Julie Snyder

Yes. I think, he said he was going to treat me like a princess. I wonder what I'm getting.

Ira Glass

Christmas is coming, baby.

Julie Snyder

An ice cream party? You know what, I would love it, is if the gift he sends me is a CD of the music that they play while you're on hold.

Ira Glass

Two days after we talked to Jim Myers, Julie received a huge gift basket from him at her house, filled with chocolate treats and fancy cheeses and gourmet crackers. And a very nice note. And with that, she no longer wanted revenge. For 10 months, the worst thing, the most infuriating thing, was that she was trapped in an impossible situation where there was no court of appeal. As an individual you can't even sue the phone company for all your lost time and your mental anguish. And then, she found the thing all of us always yearn for in this situation. She found a higher judge who could fix it.

It's now been four years since Julie had her problems and we talked to Jim Myers. And sadly, Jim Myers is no longer at MCI. In fact, MCI no longer exists. They merged with Verizon last year. If you are in a situation where you are having difficulties with your phone company, here's what you can do. You can go to the Better Business Bureau's website, bbb.org, or the FCC's website. They've got a section for this at fcc.gov. Or, for the most effective solution, the one that as we've shown really works, funding for new radio shows is done by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting two times each year. Application dates every April and November.

Credits.

Ira Glass

The program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself with Jane Feltes, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr and Starlee Kine. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our web site, www.thisamericanlife.org. Or as we like to call it, your holiday shopping wonderland. We have signed posters from our last live show tour. We have signed copies of The New Kings of Nonfiction. And a brand new, live CD of a conversation that I had on stage with three of the kings of nonfiction-- writer Susan Orlean, Chuck Klosterman, and Malcolm Gladwell.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who knows that only one person can stop me from talking about him right here in the credits.

Julie Snyder

Chuck Carter, just Chuck Carter.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.