Transcript

283:

Remember Me
Transcript

Originally aired 02.25.2005

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/283

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International.

Laura Mayer

This is going to take a while because there's so many pictures.

Yeah, he definitely defeated the system a little bit here.

Ira Glass

Laura Mayer's the editor in chief of her high school yearbook, and she's noticed that last year's book had a problem. In a lot of the club pictures, there's one kid who appears over and over and over, too many times to actually be in all the clubs.

Laura Mayer

I think he probably did this all in one day. Let me take a look. I know he's in In the Mood for Food Club, which their slogan is we love to cook and eat. He's in Military History Club. He's in Lawn Sports Club. He's in Out of the Box Club, which is-- do you need to know what that club is?

Ira Glass

I don't need to know, but now I'm sort of wondering what that is.

Laura Mayer

Sort of wondering. Well, they go on these excursions that are not inside the box, but out of the box.

Ira Glass

And the box, in this case, is the school building?

Laura Mayer

Yeah, I guess. It was sort of like thinking, you know?

Ira Glass

They're thinking outside the box.

Laura Mayer

Yeah, thinking outside of the box.

Ira Glass

I wonder what one of those excursions would be?

Laura Mayer

Well, I know that they went to see a Led Zeppelin laser show, Turkish belly dancing, and they visited a corn maze. So it's actually a really popular club. He's in that picture.

Ira Glass

I would think the laser show would actually still be in the box.

Yeah, I know. I'm pretty sure belly dancing and corn maze, I think nobody would dispute those are outside the box.

Laura Mayer

Yeah. I guess that is sort of leaning towards being inside the box. He's in Photo Club.

Ira Glass

Now is he doing anything in these pictures? Does he look like he's somebody pulling a prank?

Laura Mayer

In some of them, he does. In the two-- the ones I just looked at, the Lawn Sports and Military History Club, he looks like he's pulling a prank. A interesting grin on his face. But in the In the Mood for Food, it seems like he's being a little bit more smooth about being in the picture.

Ira Glass

What's he look like?

Laura Mayer

He's got very curly hair. I actually know his name.

Ira Glass

What's his name?

Laura Mayer

Sam Melnic.

Ira Glass

Sam Melnic?

Laura Mayer

Yeah. I know of him, but I don't know him. I think my brother might know him actually.

Ira Glass

In the back of the yearbook is an index listing all of the students and then sending you to the pages with their pictures. And at Laura's school, if you have so many photos that your listing in the index takes three lines, people notice.

Laura Mayer

You know you've made it when you've got three lines, I'd say.

Ira Glass

That's just like a known thing?

Laura Mayer

Well, definitely. Because your name sticks out and it's like you've accomplished something, I think. I mean, it's a joke, but I think a lot of people take it a little more seriously than-- yeah, someone like Sam Melnic, he may--

Ira Glass

You're flipping to the back now?

Laura Mayer

Yeah, I'm flipping through the back. Melnic. Oh, he has three lines. Wow, he has a lot. He has 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 entries, and that's huge. I mean, I have like nine, and I'm one of the editors. So I can respect that him getting 14 by like bucking the system. That might be the most, one of the most out of anyone in the book. It's got to be.

Sam Melnic

I don't know, it just seemed funny at the time. You know, me and my friend decided to get in as many pictures as possible.

Ira Glass

America, meet Sam Melnic. He says it wasn't just the talking his way into all those photos that was satisfying.

Sam Melnic

I felt more of a sense of accomplishment when I opened the yearbook and I saw the numbers.

Ira Glass

Did you actually go to your friends and say, check this out?

Sam Melnic

Yeah. And I said, hey, look, I have-- like you have like a 10 number, or something, and I like the most in the yearbook.

Ira Glass

Did you actually have the most photos in the yearbook?

Sam Melnic

Actually, I think there's actually two people with the same name who had more than me. But I think I had the most.

Ira Glass

Wow, that's a huge achievement.

Sam Melnic

I mean, you just walk into photos. Anyone can do it if you put your mind to it.

Ira Glass

You guys have to meet.

Laura Mayer

Yes.

Ira Glass

If this were a romantic comedy, if this were a movie right now, you guys would end up in love.

Laura Mayer

I know. There'd be lots of music and--

Ira Glass

But also, you'd be arch rivals for a while because you'd be trying to keep him out of the yearbook.

Laura Mayer

Exactly. He'd be like the yearbook nemesis, but then something would happen. There'd be an epiphany or something, like over a template, and that's how it would work. Yeah, and then that would be the turning point in the story. I can see that.

Ira Glass

Now, of course, Sam Melnic doesn't give a damn if the yearbook is accurate. If it's actually a history of their senior class for decades to come. But what's interesting is that Laura isn't too bothered about his prank, either. Is this kind of thing got out of hand, she says, sure, that would be bad. But one or two kids jumping into some pictures and doing it so effectively?

Laura Mayer

Yeah, I respect that. I think that type of thing adds to the charm of the yearbook.

Ira Glass

It tells a little story.

Laura Mayer

Yeah, it has a story. It adds character to the book, I think. I think it was funny, personally. I don't know how the other editors would feel, but I appreciate it.

Ira Glass

Now I bring all this up because I have a thing or two that I need to say to you about Benjamin Franklin. One of our contributing editors, Jack Hitt, has a little obsession with Franklin. He reads all those Franklin biographies that keep coming out. And he's interested in how Franklin has this kind of cheerful disregard for the truth in certain situations. There are certain situations where Franklin-- one of the people who through his writing and his action defined what it is to be an American, after all-- where Franklin happily jumped into club photos where he didn't belong in the high school yearbook. If you know what I mean. Here's jack.

Jack Hitt

Probably the most famous image we have of Franklin is him standing out in an oncoming thunderstorm flying a kite with a key on a string and I don't think it's true.

Ira Glass

In fact, a lot of people don't think it's true. A biographer named Tom Tucker tried to replicate the experiment for a book called Bolt of Fate, and he failed. A bolt of lightning hitting the kite could have actually killed Franklin. And most telling of all, in the 1750s, when all this was supposed to have happened, this experiment was supposed to have taken place, Franklin wrote that a kind of experiment sort of like this might be possible, but he never wrote anything saying that he'd actually done it.

Jack Hitt

If you had actually proved your own theory, don't you think you might have run around and said, hey, it's true. I'm right.

Ira Glass

But in fact, he didn't do that at all?

Jack Hitt

No, he didn't tell anybody. We only know about the kite story decades later. He didn't write about it at the time. And when he did write about it, it's really vague. He doesn't tell us where he was or who was there except that his son was there.

So I think what happened was, many years later, when Franklin's looking back over his life, he's got your bifocals and the Franklin stove, and he's got the insurance company thing. But then his real great sort of scientific contribution to the world is electricity.

Ira Glass

But the problem with electricity is that it didn't make a great story. Franklin had had a theory that lightning was a kind of electricity, and he encouraged experimenters to stick metal rods in the air to get hit by lightning, which guys in various countries did and actually proved him right. Which, like I say, kind of prosaic. Not sexy.

Jack Hitt

But he knew that creating an image like him flying a kite was going to last a lot longer in people's minds than guys standing next to steel rods sticking up in the air.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Jack Hitt

And it did. If you ask any child who Ben Franklin was, they will tell you the kite story.

Ira Glass

One thing that's so crazy that the idea that he made all of this up is that this was not somebody who needed to pad his resume for history. He was Benjamin Franklin. He edited Thomas Jefferson. He wrote the line, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." He created the postal system. He invented stuff. He created an American style of writing. He convinced France to fund the Revolutionary War, without which we would not be a country. If Benjamin Franklin felt the need to pretty things up a little bit for his legacy, why wouldn't Sam Melnic?

Which brings us to the subject of today's program. Today on our radio show, we bring you stories of people trying to control how they're going to be remembered. People who invent their own kite and key stories. People who run into the club pictures for clubs that they're not part of. And in most of our stories, I have to say, it turns out it's not so easy to control how people are going to see you years from now. It doesn't go too well.

Act one of our show, "Thinking Inside the Box," in which someone has a message for an audience of exactly one and plots carefully how to get her to receive that message. Act two, "Where's Walter?" Starlee Kine has the story of a haunted Ramada in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and the man who haunts it and how he's remembered. Act three, "Giving Up the Ghosts." Shalom Auslander explains why he decided to stop remembering the dead, even though his job actually required him to remember. Stay with us.

Act One. Thinking Inside The Box.

Ira Glass

Act one, "Thinking Inside the Box." David Wilcox has this story about what it is that people remember.

David Wilcox

My sister Jenny's five favorite songs are all looped, back to back to back, on a 90-minute cassette that has been dubbed so many times now most of the singing sounds like a chipmunk buried beneath a mud slide. It starts off with Jenny's favorites song, "The Greatest Love of All" by Whitney Houston. Jenny fell in love with it at the height of its popularity 20 years ago. And in the years since then, not a day has gone by when she hasn't listened to it.

Billy Joel's, "The Longest Time" follows, along with two songs from the movie The Jungle Book recorded directly off the TV. It is, unequivocally, the worst mix tape of all time. And lest you think I'm exaggerating, please consider the most recent addition to the tape recorded by Carly Simon in 1986. I defy you to make it through this song in its entirety even once, let alone the thousands of times the members of my family have.

[MUSIC- "ITSY BITSY SPIDER" BY CARLY SIMON]

This is the sort of music SWAT teams bring out as a last resort during a hostage standoff. And, strangely enough, it's also how my sister makes it from one day to the next.

How could somebody listen to this every single day? You would have to be mentally retarded. Which, it turns out, my sister is. I know how that sounds. I know it's bad to use the R word. But in 1970 when Jenny was born, she was simply, as my parents were informed shortly after her birth, retarded.

The official diagnosis was severe and profound, which meant she would never learn to walk, talk, feed, bathe, or dress herself. And the doctors recommended, as they often did back then, that she be sent to live in a state institution. But my parents kept her at home, and while my dad worked, my mom dedicated the rest of her life to teaching Jenny everything she'd never be able to do.

Today, Jenny's capable of far more than anyone could have predicted. By that, I mean she can walk, talk, swim, use a fork, recognize colors, and recite the alphabet, if you help her along. She went to the same high school I did and even has a job doing light assembly at an assisted living facility. But at the same time, she's little more than a four-year-old. Life for Jenny is exactly like life for a toddler, filled with simple pleasures, structured around a set routine in which any day, like the day before, is a good day. Which brings me back to the mix tape.

When you meet Jenny, it's one of the first things you find out about. When she's not listening to it, she's talking about it. She carries it around for hours in anticipation and she's sure you want to listen to it with her. She even used to follow people around the house with it blaring from a Fisher-Price cassette recorder.

There have been other fixations throughout Jenny's life, though none as significant as the tape. There was the old Monkeys TV show, a British cartoon called Danger Mouse, videotapes of Cinderella, and, of course, The Jungle Book.

And you wouldn't believe how excited this stuff makes her. She literally squeals every time it comes on. It's so genuine and sweet that you can't help but be excited for her. It makes you want to give her the next thing she feels this way about.

At one time a few years ago, my mom actually made Jenny a video. My parents didn't have a camcorder, so she asked a neighbor to come over to the house and shoot it. And on the video, my mom gives a tour of Jenny's favorite things.

David's Mom

This is the best thing we ever did. Because she can put the video in by herself. And it will start and play through and rewind and eject and turn off and she doesn't have to do anything. I haven't had to watch Jungle Book in a year and a half. Which, you have no idea.

David Wilcox

Two years before my mom made this, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. By the time they discovered it, it had spread to her lymph nodes, which meant all she could do was start chemotherapy and hope for the best. Remission came and went. The cancer spread to her brain, then to her bones.

By the time this was recorded, she had begun hospice care and was coming to terms with the inevitable.

David's Mom

I'll show you her costumes. I think I'm going to take a marker and mark stuff as to whether it's work, play, dress-up.

David Wilcox

Death isn't something you can explain to Jenny. All she knows is that you're gone, and once you're no longer a part of her day to day, her memory fades.

My mom used to have this running joke that when she was finally gone, Jenny wouldn't even notice. But at the same time, it wasn't a joke. So she made this tape hoping it would be the sort of thing Jenny would watch every evening after dinner on the TV in her bedroom. The one that starts, plays through, rewinds, and ejects without her having to do anything.

My mom spent a lot of time planning this tape, but you wouldn't know that from watching it. She seems nervous and unsure of what to say, like someone had just pulled a camera out on the spot and told her to start talking. Parts of it are completely inaudible. There are these choppy cuts where the tape starts and stops.

And because of the chemo, she barely even looks like herself. She's wearing a wig, her body doesn't look healthy, her voice doesn't even sound that much like her. If you listen closely, you can hear her try to catch her breath, winded from just walking around the house.

David's Mom

Her dress up stuff's in here. She's got a flapper. How about this for hotsy-totsy? She looks so cute in it. And her cheerleader stuff. She's all fixed up. Billy will have to figure out what to do with it. But he will.

David Wilcox

Most of it's just like this, shots of closets and bedrooms, a tape of my mom not saying what she's really feeling to someone who can't understand it anyway. Instead, she explains Jenny's daily routine to the neighbor who's behind the camera. Then at the end there's an edit and suddenly, she's sitting on my sister's bed, finally talking directly into the camera, directly to Jenny. It's one of those moments people go over in their heads a million times, the last thing you might ever say to someone you love. Where every word is supposed to be eloquent and moving and memorable. But, with someone like Jenny, you do exactly what my mom did. You keep it simple and you tell her what she can understand.

David's Mom

This is your room. You know you're supposed to make your bed up here every morning. And that's not going to change. You can come up here and watch a video as long as you don't do it 24 hours a day. Maybe Daddy will get you a boombox all your very own if you'll be good and not want to listen to it all the time. But you have to do other things. You have to help Daddy around the house and that kind of thing.

David Wilcox

And that's the moment, the one moment where she says what she's feeling. "You have to help Daddy around the house." She's going to be gone and it's just going to be my sister and my dad, and she doesn't know what they're going to do without her. This was my mom's way of telling Jenny that she wasn't abandoning her. A way to be there on demand, whenever she was needed.

A few weeks after the funeral, my dad put this video on. Jenny didn't even watch it through to the end. Soon, it wound up at the bottom of a drawer, sandwiched between The Muppets and Barney the dinosaur, who my sister also once loved, and now has forgotten.

And while it's sad to think that she doesn't want to see it, it's a comfort to know she doesn't need to. She doesn't need to hear her voice or remember her face. She doesn't wonder where our mom is or when she's coming back. It's as though Mom never existed. And while I'm sure that would break my mom's heart, I'm also sure she would want, as she always did, whatever was best for Jenny. Even if that means she's forgotten.

That's the weird advantage to being Jenny. The bigger the change, the less she understands it, and the more she concentrates on what stays the same. While the rest of us struggle with memories, she simply forgets. If only we were all so lucky.

Ira Glass

David Wilcox is a Texan living in Chicago.

There's an organization that's recording people to preserve their voices and stories for their children and generations to come. It's called StoryCorps. They have an audio booth in Grand Central Station in New York City. They're building others around the country.

From time to time, you can hear some of the stories and voices they've gathered on public radio. Here are two stories that they recorded in New York.

The first one is this guy who has thought quite a bit about what he's going to be remembered for. The second is a bus driver who has never forgotten one of his customers.

Don Lerman

Everybody got something in their life that they're good at. This is what I do good, I eat. I was always a bigger eater than most people in my family. And about five years ago, there was an ad in the paper for a matzoh ball contest.

I went down to the contest, I broke a record. I ate 10 matzoh balls, half-pounders the size of baseballs, in 2 minutes, 50 seconds. No one ever ate more than 10. And I went on to the finals and I won. And Mayor Giuliani gave me the trophy. And the announcer said, let's hear it for Don Lerman and Rudy Giuliani. And we're both shaking hands like the president and the vice president-elect. That was the first trophy, the matzoh ball trophy, ever in my life.

I always wanted to be famous. I always wanted to be president, or a big lawyer, or a doctor or something, and it just never happened. I had a couple of day-old bread stores. That was my business. I worked 80 hours a week, 7 days a week. I just thought the parade would pass me by until eating.

My father never lived to see me famous and he always thought I was a loser. I wish he was alive to see that I'm a somebody.

Ronald Ruiz

I remember one woman, in particular, a senior, who had gotten on my bus and she seemed completely lost. I could see she was confused. I don't know whether it was an illness, but she looked so beautiful for a hot summer day to have her fur on. So I said, are you OK? She said, oh, I'm fine. I'm fine, but I don't know a restaurant. I'm meeting my friends. I said, you sit on the bus. I'll run in and I'll check each restaurant. The very, very last one on the left, I said, it's got to be this one. So I said stay here, sweetie, it's nice and cool in here.

I went in and I said, there's a lady in the bus and she's not sure the restaurant. And I saw a whole bunch of other seniors there and they said, oh, it's probably her. So I ran back to the bus. I said, oh, sweetie, your restaurant is right here. And I said, no, no, don't move. And I grabbed her hand. I remember my right hand grabbed her right hand. I wanted to make her feel special, like it was a limousine. It's a bus. She said she felt like Cinderella.

And she said, I've been diagnosed with cancer. And today is the best day of my life. Just because I helped her off the bus. And I never forgot that woman.

Ira Glass

Ronald Ruiz, a New York City bus driver on the City Island Line in the Bronx. Before him was Don "Moses" Lerman, who's a competitive eater. He attends big events on the International Federation of Competitive Eating Circuit.

Act Two. Where's Walter?

Ira Glass

Act two, "Where's Walter?"

Our next story is a story of a man trying to control his legacy using all the normal means that a person can, and pretty much failing pretty completely. It's a story that Starlee Kine kind of stumbled into by accident.

Starlee Kine

Not long ago, I had to go to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, for work. So I went online and found one of those sites that booked hotels. This was a typical review for the Fond du Lac Holiday Inn.

"If you want a nice vacation, but don't want to spend gobs of money, this is a place for you. Friendly staff, nice pool, great continental breakfast. The only problem was the elevator was a little slow. Oh well."

And this was the typical review for the Fond du Lac Ramada Hotel.

"Service was great. The good was good. They're redoing their bar and it looks awesome. Only problem was that something sat down on my bed while I was sleeping. And I was alone. I felt a hand resting on my chest. It felt like my mother used to do when she would try to calm me down at night. It brought back a pleasant memory, but if left me a bit on edge after that."

How could I pass up a recommendation like that?

Starlee Kine

So tell me about the ghost.

Woman

He's Walter.

Starlee Kine

He's Walter.

Woman

He's Walter. He's the ghost that likes to haunt us.

Starlee Kine

Have you seen Walter?

Woman

I haven't seen Walter, but I've felt him around here.

Starlee Kine

Yeah? What's that feel like?

Woman

Scary. Yeah, it's like a tingle up your back.

Starlee Kine

The Ramada Hotel is in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, right off of Highway 41. And Walter is the ghost of the hotel's original owner, Walter Schroeder. Almost all of the staff, most of them teenage girls, have had firsthand experiences with Walter. The staff keeps a log of every last door rattle or crashed drinking glass or glowing light attributed to him.

The biggest entry by far is what happened in room 717. It's a classic. Here's Becky, the girl who works the weekend shift.

Starlee Kine

What happened in room 717?

Becky

Oh, that one. OK. I guess there's a guest that called down about a complaint coming from one of the rooms that they could hear screaming for help. And at the time, Emily, who was the desk manager, was working. And she followed procedure, had maintenance go up there and check.

And maintenance went up there and they went to 717 and the door was shaking, like someone from the inside was kicking it and pounding it and screaming for help. And they keys would not work to get into the door. And then, all of a sudden, it stopped. And he went into the room and there was nothing there.

He told Emily that the room was empty. There was nobody in the closets. He said from the force of the kicking on the doors, there should have been marks on the doors. But there was nothing. I'm getting the goosebumps.

Starlee Kine

There are long lists on the internet of hotels that try to lure guests in with promises of paranormal activity. That talk more about their ghosts than they do their room rates. But the Ramada in Fond du Lac has a refreshingly non-exploitative relationship to its ghost. Its bar is not called the House of Spirits, its restaurant isn't called the Haunted Hamburger. They don't sell, "My grandmother went to Fond du Lac and lived to tell about it" t-shirts in the gift shop. In fact, it doesn't even have a gift shop.

Nope. No, the only way you'll find out about Walter is if he chooses to make his presence known to you by say, pulling your hair, or switching the channels on your TV. The hotel says his favorite is C-SPAN.

And according to the staff, as far as types of ghosts go, Walter's more of the annoying variety than the scary. His lot in the afterlife is to get blamed whenever anything goes wrong. He's basically a scape ghost.

Becky

Well, one time me and a coworker were counting the money and all of a sudden it disappeared. And we counted it several times over and over repeatedly and it wasn't there anymore. And then all of a sudden it showed up.

Starlee Kine

And that was Walter, you think?

Becky

Yeah.

Man 1

I came on my shift and I opened the till. I put my money in. I made one transaction all night. When I went to cash out, it was short-- do you remember what it was?

Becky

$5.

Man 1

Yeah, it was short like $5 and some odd change. And it was really strange because nobody else had gone in the till. And it was just simply gone.

Becky

The computer, it beeps. It just beeps all the time and then I just tell it to shut up because I think it's Walter. I think he took a picture of me one time, me and another girl I was working with. We saw just a flash from the balcony. We didn't know what happened.

Starlee Kine

What would Walter want to do with a picture of you?

Becky

I don't know. I just tell him to go away because he bugs me.

Starlee Kine

I spent a total of five nights at the Ramada and didn't really feel a presence, as much as I tried. I wandered the halls whispering Walter's name. I took Polaroids in hopes of capturing a spirit waving from inside the vending machine. I found the spookiest, most clearly hauntable place in the hotel, the locked ball room, and pressed my nose against its glass doors trying to spot the ghost inside.

The closest I came was the night I fell asleep with the TV on. When I went to bed it was on one channel, and then when I awoke the next morning, it was on another. Not C-SPAN though, but the Bible channel.

Other hotel ghosts usually stick around because they've been wronged in some way, or met an untimely death. At the Holiday Inn in Buffalo, a little girl ghost named Tonya burnt to death in a house that once stood there. Now she's always jumping on the hotel beds.

In New Mexico, a beautiful young maid named Rebecca was killed by a jealous lumberjack. And now her ghost likes to talk on the telephone in the governor's suite.

At the Golden North Hotel in Alabama, Mary lies waiting for eternity for a husband to return from his gold rushing expedition.

And all the ghosts who haunt the Queen Mary Hotel in California were victims of accidental drownings. Except for the cook, whose food was so bad, he was murdered.

But the odd thing about Walter is that he doesn't even have a motive. In fact, I was shocked that no one on staff was even the least bit curious about why Walter would have stuck around.

Starlee Kine

So why do you think Walter would choose this hotel?

Man 2

I don't know.

Man 3

I have no idea.

Woman 1

I have no idea.

Woman 2

I really don't know.

Woman 3

I don't know.

Starlee Kine

What could a man have done in his life that was so horrible, so wrong, so unbearably tragic that he'd be condemned to wander for eternity the halls of a Ramada hotel? I decided to try to find out on my own, which meant doing some research.

Before there was Walter the ghost, there was Walter the man. And before there was a Ramada, there was a Retlaw, which is what the hotel was called when Walter originally owned it. Retlaw is Walter backwards. Retlaw. It's just so ridiculously creepy, so redrum, that it's hard to not suspect that Walter had this whole ghost thing planned all along.

The Retlaw Hotel opened in 1923. Apparently there wasn't a lot to write about those days because the town newspaper devoted 22 pages to the hotel's opening.

One article took up a full page describing the cigar case in the lobby, the second longest cigar case in the entire state. The Retlaw was a class act. The rooms had chenille carpeting, velvet drapes, and furniture carved out of mahogany wood. There were even special rooms for traveling salesmen with panels that folded down from the wall to display their wares.

There was a big party to celebrate the opening. In between all the dancing, 250 guests feasted on breast of milk-fed chicken, petit fours, and strangely, Saltines. Walter Schroeder made a toast: "Tonight I present the people of Fond du Lac with as fine a hotel as it is possible to build."

Which, in itself, might be another clue. Whoever talks like that except at the ironic speech leading up to the big fire or the sinking of the sturdiest ship ever built? It's like the hotel version of, honey, I love you so much and there's something really special I've been meaning to ask you. Oh, never mind, you've got a flight to catch. It can wait.

Walter Schroeder was a man of accomplishment. At 14, he got a job as a reporter for his local newspaper. At 16, he started his own paper. At 21, he formed what would become the largest insurance agency in the state. By 24, his name had already appeared in the book, Notable Men of Wisconsin. And by the time he was 30, he was considered one of the most successful hotel operators the state had ever known.

The more I learned about Walter the man, the less Walter the ghost made sense. Especially after I spoke with Gary Simic, the head of the library named after Walter, at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

Every morning for the last 17 years, Gary's been greeted by Walter's portrait opposite the front door. He says Walter looks like somebody's good-natured uncle.

Gary

From what we know about Walter, he was very nice man. Very generous, very charitable man. He was a man that liked people. He was famous for his dinner parties that he held at the Schroeder Hotel, the old Schroeder Hotel in Milwaukee.

I remember in the archives seeing a picture of him at one of these dinner parties. And, you know, people are laughing and he was a very gracious host. Seemed to enjoy people.

Starlee Kine

When Walter died, a foundation was started to distribute his many millions of dollars throughout Wisconsin. So now there's all these places that have Walter's name on them. There's the Walter Schroeder Health Complex at Marquette University. There's the Walter Schroeder Intensive Care Unit at St. Mary's Hospital. There's even a Walter Schroeder student dormitory.

In addition to that, four of Walter Schroeder's seven hotels are still standing. Besides the Ramada, there's The Astor, The Wisconsin, and The Hotel Schroeder, Walter's favorite.

Which raises the question, why would Walter have chosen to spend his death tromping around a hotel that wasn't even his top choice in life? So I made some calls. I started with the Walter Schroeder wing of a YMCA in Brown Deer, Wisconsin.

Ymca Worker

Front Desk, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] speaking. How may I help you?

Starlee Kine

Hi, is this the Walter Schroeder Aquatic Center? I have a question to ask you. It might sound a little unusual. Are you aware that the ghost of Walter Schroeder is haunting the Ramada Inn in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin?

Ymca Worker

Well, OK. Off the record, but whatever. You can use what you want. They say he haunts here.

Starlee Kine

They do? They do not.

Ymca Worker

I swear to you they say that. There's a guy who actually quit because he was freaked out. It's like an ongoing scary thing with the camp kids too.

Starlee Kine

They're all like afraid of Walter?

Ymca Worker

Yeah.

Starlee Kine

Really?

Ymca Worker

Yep.

Starlee Kine

Next I called the Scottish Rite Masonic Lodge in Milwaukee. Walter was a proud mason for 30 years. When he died, they honored Walter's memory by naming a lounge after him, Walter's Lounge. Dick, the custodian, answered the phone.

Dick

Hello, Scottish Rite.

Starlee Kine

Is this the Mason's Lodge in Milwaukee?

Dick

Yes.

Starlee Kine

And you guys have a Walter Schroeder Lounge, right?

Dick

Yes, we do. Walter Schroeder. Yes.

Starlee Kine

Did you know that Walter Schroeder's ghost is actually haunting the Ramada Inn in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin?

Dick

Is that right? Well, I'm custodial here and I'm the guy that can tell you the noises I hear at night, I don't know.

Starlee Kine

What's the Walter Schroeder Lounge like?

Dick

Well, the Walter Schroeder Lounge has got three large chandeliers in it. It has a baby grand piano in it.

Starlee Kine

Wow. Did Walter play piano?

Dick

Well, that's the thing. I'll tell you now, I've heard the piano play and no one's been in here.

Starlee Kine

It's Walter?

Dick

That's Walter. Part of him is here all the time.

Starlee Kine

Poor Walter.

Dick

Yeah, poor Walter.

Starlee Kine

Poor Walter. In life, he was this great guy. He built empires and hosted grand parties and gave away tons of money to organizations he believed in. But in death, according to the people all up and down the state of Wisconsin, he spends his days knocking glasses off shelves, and scaring little children at the pool, playing the piano, and swiping small bills from cash registers, and taking flash photographs of unsuspecting teenage girls.

Gary Simic at the Walter Schroeder Library has his work cut out for him, preserving Walter's memory.

Gary

We try to keep it alive. When we do our teaching and our bibliographic and library instruction, we always mention who he was and why he was important.

Starlee Kine

So how does it make you feel that for a lot of people in Fond du Lac, Walter Schroeder is nothing more than-- he's just a ghost?

Gary

Well, I feel bad about that. I think they need to know a little bit more about Walter. He was a nice guy and this has been my place. And if not for him, we wouldn't be here.

Starlee Kine

So this is how it goes. You live your life perfectly, and then you die. And no matter what, your fate is out of your hands. If you're lucky, your legacy will carry on. If you're like Walter, you'll get blamed for the mildly bad behavior of every ghost in the state of Wisconsin.

What is so unfair about the whole thing is that every time Walter gets blamed, wrongly, for flushing a toilet in the middle of the night, or switching the TV to say, live coverage of the Senate Finance Committee, the real Walter is being remembered and forgotten at the same time.

Ira Glass

Starlee Kine. Coming up, whose heart doesn't break for a freezer full of Espteins? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass.

Today on our program, stories of people and how they're remembered. Mostly how they're remembered incorrectly.

Before we start act three of our program, we have two more little stories from the StoryCorps project, a project devoted to preserving people's memories. Both of these are reunions of a sort captured on tape.

The first one is between two men who spent their childhoods together at a psychiatric hospital and recently united at the StoryCorps recording booth after 40 years.

The second one is kind of self-explanatory.

Ralph Tremonte

I'm seeing you after 40 years, and I'm seeing fear in you. And let me ask you a very important question, do you feel institutionalized?

Donald Weiss

No.

Ralph Tremonte

Because I'd like you to come out of that shell, man. Because you're not free in that shell. And I want you to be free.

Donald Weiss

I'm free. I do what I want now. But the only thing is--

Ralph Tremonte

But you're still scared.

Donald Weiss

No I'm not.

Ralph Tremonte

Yes you are. And I want to tell you something else. Don't stop having interest in women. You're a free man and you should feel that maybe you could pick up a lady or meet a lady.

Donald Weiss

I have one.

Ralph Tremonte

That's great.

Donald Weiss

Her name is Marion.

Ralph Tremonte

And another thing. What you should do is make your home more comfortable to live in. Get yourself a CD player, listen to some music. Don't stay in that shell. Do you do a lot of reading?

Donald Weiss

Yes. Dirty novels.

Ralph Tremonte

Well, dirty novels is all right. That's not against the law. That's why they sell them, Donald. You're not allowing yourself to exercise your freedom, man, and that's what I want you to do, man. Because that'll make me real happy and you'll be able to come out of that shell, man. Because I really don't want you in that shell for the rest of your life. That's the way I feel about it, man.

Go ahead, Donald, I want to hear you. I haven't seen you in 40 years.

Donald Weiss

That fear in that darn, lousy hospital is still in my system.

Ralph Tremonte

Yeah, well you're never going to get rid of that. But guess what?

Donald Weiss

I might get rid of it. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] is gone.

Ralph Tremonte

The memory is always going to be there. But guess what? You don't have to live it for the rest of your life.

Donald Weiss

I used to bite my fingers about [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Ralph Tremonte

Donald, they don't have that many hospitals to put anybody in no more.

Donald Weiss

I know.

Ralph Tremonte

We're not living in that era anymore. That era is dead.

Donald Weiss

It's dead. It's dead and buried.

Ralph Tremonte

You're free, man. You don't have to take that. Am I right, Donald?

Donald Weiss

Right.

Ralph Tremonte

Say it loud and clear.

Donald Weiss

Right, 100%.

Brad Skow

Can you tell me about the day I was born?

Mary Lou Maher

The doctor took you away quickly because they had asked if I wanted to hold you. And I said, no, because I was afraid if I held you I wouldn't be able to give you up. So they took you away crying and that was all I saw. And they didn't put me in the maternity ward because they were afraid that would be too hard for me. They just put me in the women's ward.

And I remember one of the nurses coming up after you were born and I was crying a lot. And she just came up and she just talked to me for a really long time. And she said, you know, it's going to be OK. It just takes time.

And it took, I don't know, about five years before I stopped thinking about you every day and crying to just thinking about you every week. To the point where it only happened about once a month, but it still made me sad.

Brad Skow

So I have one more question, and it's the big one you've been waiting for. You now know having lived through it what the consequences of choosing to give me up are, so knowing what you know now, would you do it again?

Mary Lou Maher

Well, of course knowing what I know now I wouldn't do it again. I remember I used to talk to you a lot when I was pregnant and explain the whole situation, why I had to do this. That I wasn't ready to be a mother. I didn't have a father for you.

I was really sure of myself, I remember that. That this was the best decision. But now I wouldn't even think about it because the separation and the loss is just way too hard. I mean, we have a relationship now and it's great. You've sort of become part of the family, but I missed 20 years. And you can't ever get that back.

Ira Glass

Mary Lou Maher and her son Brad Skow. She was a college freshman, just 17, when she found out she was pregnant. Before her were Ralph Tremonte and Donald Weiss. Thanks to Sarah Kramer and the staff of StoryCorps. Their website, storycorps.net.

Act Three. Giving Up The Ghosts.

Ira Glass

Which brings us to act three, "Giving Up the Ghosts."

We've been talking about how people are remembered all hour long, and of course, some people don't want to remember the dead at all. They turn their backs. Shalom Auslander has this story from the years after he left yeshiva, the Jewish religious school, where he was raised.

Shalom Auslander

ON a good week, you might get two or three dead bodies. Then there were the weeks where it seemed not a single goddamn person would die.

Impatient, I would phone a man named Mati. Mati was the dispatcher. Anything, I would ask?

Nothing, Mati would say. Did I beep you?

No, I would say. Just checking.

When somebody died, their family would call Mati. And Mati would call me.

Can you work the weekend he would ask.

Yeah, sure. I can work the weekend.

I was a watcher, a [UNINTELLIGIBLE] in Hebrew. According to Jewish belief, the soul departs the body at the time of death but sort of hangs out until the body is buried. This can be a terribly distressing time for the soul, what with all the not having a body and that being invisible and the floating around. Therefore, the rabbis decreed, from the moment of death to the moment of burial, the body of the deceased must never be left alone.

Traditionally, a member of the family would sit with the body. But if nobody in the family wanted to sit with a cold, dead body in the cold, dark basement of a cold, empty funeral home, the family called Mati. And Mati called me.

Flushing Meadows Memorial, Jewel Avenue, Schwartz. Oceanside Memorial, 2111 Atlantic Avenue, Finkel. Riverdale Hebrew Home, Riverside and 268th Street, Dweck.

The ancient rabbis tell us that being a watcher is a wonderful mitzvah, or good deed, for which the almighty blessed be he and the world to come will abundantly reward us. That was all well and good, but Mati paid $85 a night, cash, and that was all the reward I needed.

I was 19 years old, living away from home for the first time. I had spent my entire life in yeshivas, raised like a veal in the orthodox skinner box of God. And though I certainly looked the part with my black pants, white button-down shirt, and black wide-brimmed fedora, lately I had been feeling less and less Jerusalem and more and more Gomorrah.

In the beginning, I could count on two jobs a week. Three if I was lucky. Friday nights paid double, almost $200. But you had to show up Friday evening and stay until after Sabbath ended late on Saturday night. That was a long time to spend with a dead body, even for me. But $200 was $200 and I was no idiot. I was saving up for a 1982 Ford Mustang convertible.

It was surprisingly pleasant work. The dead were my kind of people.

Bring a pillow said Mati the first time he called, and a tehillim. Tehillim is Hebrew for the book of psalms. And a snack, he added.

What kind of a snack? I asked.

Whatever you want, said Mati.

Like what, potato chips?

Potato chips are fine.

Can I bring a sandwich?

What kind of sandwich, Mati asked?

Tuna?

There was a pause while Mati considered the theological implications. You can bring a sandwich, Mati decreed.

Cue Gardens Funeral, Jewel Avenue, Bernstein. My first job. Mati told me to be there no later than 7 o'clock in the evening our I wouldn't be able to get in. The security guard would have an envelope for me with $85 and in it and he would show me to the body.

I'd never been in a funeral home before. The main floor was lavishly decorated, Victorian style furniture, heavy, golden drapery, Italian marble. The guard led me across the lobby to a steel door in the back. We made our way down the bare wooden stairs to the basement where they kept the bodies, and I remember the old adage about never looking inside the kitchen of your favorite restaurant.

There was no drapery and there was no marble. There were a lot of rusty pipes and a noisy boiler and a dangerously overloaded fuse box. The only furniture, aside from some spare hospital gurneys, was a battered old metal folding chair.

There you go, said the guard. There's a toilet at the end of the hall.

I'm here for Bernstein, I said. Is there a Bernstein here?

He pointed to the large stainless steel door of a commercial refrigerator. Bernstein, he said. I'll be here another 15 minutes if you need anything.

I opened my backpack and took out a bottle of purple Gatorade and my book of psalms. Blessed is he who goes in the path of their-- oh, brother. It seemed a bit to be given Bernstein that sort of advice.

I don't know about you, Bernstein, I said, but I'm beat. I laid down on the gurney, put on my Walkman, smoked half a joint, and tried to sleep. I was pretty sure there was no such thing as a soul. And even if there were, I was pretty sure that a glassy-eyed teenage pothead munching his way through a bag of Doritos Cool Ranch tortilla chips wasn't going to offer it a whole heap of consolation.

Business was good. I enjoyed the independence. I made my own hours. No meetings, no small talk. It was just me, my sandwich, a small bag of marijuana, a pack of smokes, Guns and Roses "Appetite for Destruction," and some dead guy in a big steel fridge.

Unfortunately, Jewish law stated that a watcher is only permitted to watch one body at a time. If there was only one body in the funeral home, it was clear which body I was watching and there was no need for me to see it. Occasionally, though, the fridge was packed floor to ceiling, which meant I was required to open the door and make actual eye contact with the body I was meant to be watching. Like most things biblical, this was a less than foolproof method that led to a certain amount of confusion.

One night I was told to watch an Epstein. Inside the fridge I found three of them, a David Epstein, a Gerald Epstein, and a Motia Epstein. I caught the funeral director just before he left for the night. Yep, he said, we got us a whole load of Epsteins.

We stepped inside the fridge. Which Epstein is mine? I asked.

Which Epstein in mine, he repeated as he checked their tags. As if it were some sort of deep, existential question mankind has pondered since time began.

Which Epstein is mine? How will I find my Epstein?

He suggested I cover my bases and take a good, solid look at each of the Epsteins. Can't go wrong that way, he said.

Really? I asked. You sure that's kosher?

Kosher with me, he said.

A ghoulish economics developed. All that dying was making me a nice living. One dead paid my AmEx bill. Three deads covered my share of the rent. A weekend job covered me for weed and food, and soon I was done for the month. Every dead after that was just gravy. Two deads got me some new Air Jordans, three deads was a new TV. If Mati could have guaranteed me a solid extra dead a week, I would have ordered HBO. But I was no fool. I was saving up for a 1982 Ford Mustang convertible.

Death didn't bother me. I'd never personally known anybody that died, but after 19 years in orthodox yeshiva, I was pretty familiar with death. The Jewish holidays all seemed to involve someone killing us, someone trying to kill us, or our praying to God so that he doesn't kill us himself.

Jewish history was the same. If the Babylonians weren't trying to kill us, it was the Romans. If it wasn't the Romans, it was the Spanish. And if it wasn't the Spanish, it was the Germans.

Every Holocaust Remembrance Day, we were led into the school auditorium to watch hours and hours of newsreel footage of concentration camps and gas chambers. So graphic was the footage that we needed special permission forms signed by our parents. This was never a problem for me.

My mother lived for death. Nothing made her happier than sadness. Nothing made her more joyful than melancholy. She worked as a medical assistant for a local pediatrician and the tragedies she witnessed there were at least as much a perk as the dental coverage.

A boy came into the office today, she would say at dinner. Hepatitis. She would pause to take a long, slow sip of her soup. C, she would add.

My father would pound the table with his fist. Do we have to listen to this crap every goddamn meal, he would bark, taking his plate into the kitchen to finish eating.

Indeed, we did.

It's a death sentence, she would say once he'd left. Kid doesn't have a chance.

Lung infections, genetic disease, spinal meningitis. I ate as quickly as I could hoping to get through dessert before the gastrointestinal disorders.

I had a brother who died years before I was born. His name was Jeffy. Between Jeffy and my relatives who died in the Holocaust, my mother had more pictures of the dead on our walls than she had of the living.

By the time I was nine years old, my father drank heavily and physically abused my older brother. My brother hated my mother and resented me. My mother loathed my brother and doted on me and my sister. My sister hated my brother and defended my mother. I envied my brother and pitied my mother. And my father hated us all. All of this, the family story goes, because Jeffy died.

You should never know the pain of losing a child, my mother said to me. Between my mother and my rabbis, death wasn't the worst thing I could imagine. In fact, by the time I was 19, I couldn't care less about it.

A few months after I started, Mati hired a second watcher. Business was good, Mati was branching out, expanding to meet customer demand. And I didn't like it. The new watcher's name was David. David was Mati's cousin, and I was convinced he was receiving preferential treatment. He was given nearly every weekend job, the $200 types. And I was pretty sure he getting first pick of the midweek gigs as well. Impatient, I phoned Mati.

Anything? I would ask.

Nothing, Mati would say. Did I beep you?

No, I would say, just checking. I'll beep you, he would say.

The third watcher Mati hired was named Schmoa. Schmoa was an ultra-orthodox yeshiva student who knew Mati from synagogue and cynically pretended that the money didn't matter to him. I need the mitzvahs, he would say to Mati, clapping his hands with righteous glee.

Listen, rabbi, I thought, back of the line. You've got the rest of your life to earn rewards for the next world. I'm trying to buy a car in this one.

Pretty soon I was down to one lousy dead every two or three weeks. Impatient, I phoned Mati.

Anything? I asked.

Nothing, Mati said. Did I beep you?

Nothing? I asked. Nobody's died in the past three weeks in all of Brooklyn and Queens?

Blessed is he who heals the sick, said Mati.

Oh, bullshit, I said, and slammed down the phone. Goddamn death was all about who you know.

Mati never beeped me again. And frankly, I didn't want him to.

I'd had almost a whole month off from death. No funeral homes, no refrigerators. No suffering of any kind when my mother called to tell me that my grandmother had passed away. She's at the Zion Gate Memorial Home, she said. You know where it is.

My mother had been proud of my watching career and had been said to hear of its sudden demise. She was like a Yankee fan that knew someone who worked for the team. She'd known someone on the inside of sorrow, her favorite sport.

I know where it is, I said.

She blew her nose into the phone and sighed deeply. So unexpected, she said. That's the hardest part. My grandmother had died from Alzheimer's, a disease she'd had for well over seven years.

I got to Zion Gate, walked heavily down the stairs, threw my bag on a nearby gurney, and dropped into my old seat on the metal folding chair beside the fridge.

I didn't know my grandmother well. The disease had killed her mind years before it finally came back for her body. But I had some fond memories of her from my childhood. Memories I desperately ran through my mind, trying for once to feel something, anything for the dead body inside that fridge.

I remembered how when I was young she would bring us Rice Krispy treats that she made with real Fluffernutter, which everyone knows isn't kosher.

They're just kids, she would say to my mother. And when my mother's back was turned, she'd put her finger over her lips to keep us quiet and silently hand us boxes of non-kosher Chiclets chewing gum.

Don't tell your mother, she'd whisper.

But it was no use. I didn't know her that well and I sat there fuming, picturing my mother upstairs, the belle of the misery ball. Should be sighing and hugging and reciting Yiddish aphorisms about the inescapable brutality of our wretched lives.

I felt like Al Pacino in that mafia movie. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

I opened my Gatorade, took a few hits off a joint, put on my Walkman and tried to get some sleep. It was already 11:00 PM and I had to be at my new job at the hardware store early the next morning. Let the rest of them mourn. I was saving up for a 1982 Ford Mustang convertible.

Ira Glass

Shalom Auslander. His book, Foreskin's Lament, was a 2007 New York Times Notable Book of the Year. It has just come out in paperback.

[MUSIC - "LIVE AND LET DIE" BY GUNS 'N' ROSES.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced by Sarah Koenig and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, Jane Feltes, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Our protection manager is Seth Lind. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Kevin Clark, Thea Chaloner, and Andy Dixon.

StoryCorps funders include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, where right now you can get tickets to our live movie event. That's right, we are doing our radio show in front of a live audience and beaming it to movie theaters all over the country. You can see us one night, April 23, one night only. For tickets, www.thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss Mr. Torey Malatia, who describes what it is like for him running our radio station.

Shalom Auslander

It was just me, my sandwich, pack of smokes, Guns and Roses "Appetite for Destruction," and a small bag of marijuana.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.